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Legal pot gets toehold in Castle Rock but lacks acceptance in many towns

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Castle Rock's first pot shop opens

Tru Greenthumb employee Michelle McGrath, left, helps a customer with their selection on Tuesday, Jan. 22. Recently opened in December 2018, Tru Greenthumb is the only cannabis retail dispensary in Castle Rock.

CASTLE ROCK — Castle Rock’s first retail marijuana shop opened in December, less than a year after the city revised its ordinances to allow cannabis sales. Tru Greenthumb is drawing a mixed response from the community.

“We have people that are really happy we are here, and we have people who are more conservative, which I understand,” said shop owner Alya Savage.

Savage, 31, started her career in the marijuana industry in 2011. She had two medical marijuana shops in Kitsap County, where she lives. When the state legalized recreational use of the drug, she applied for and was granted three retail licenses.

She decided to open a shop in Castle Rock after the Legislature passed new rules in June for retail marijuana holders. The rules subject licensees to possible forfeiture if they do not open a business in a timely manner, and they put Savage at risk of losing her third license.

Although Savage would have preferred to open a shop closer to her home, she was forced to look outside of Kitsap County. Counties can cap how many marijuana businesses they allow within their borders, and Kitsap County was already full, Savage said.

Cowlitz County was the nearest county with space available for new marijuana shops, Savage said, and Castle Rock was the first place with an open storefront and city laws that allowed pot shops.

“It’s just one of those things that the city has to do,” said Castle Rock Mayor Paul Helenberg. “The state legalized it; we just wanted to make it so we pretty much follow the state law.”

Castle Rock city code allows retail marijuana shops to operate in the city, but it limits where they can be located. The restrictions were put in place in February, when the city ended its almost two-year moratorium banning all marijuana sales by adopting changes proposed by the city’s building and planning commission.

“I know within the planning commission there was discussion of (banning it),” said Gregg Dohrn, city planner. “There was a recognition or a sense that some people might see it as an appropriate (land) use within the community and some people might see it as an inappropriate or undesirable use. So the planning commission really worked through it from a standpoint of what are appropriate measure to protect the public health and safety.”

Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana use and production in 2012, but it remains illegal on a federal level and still faces resistance in many communities. So the ambivalence to its presence in Castle Rock is no surprise.

There are 78 cities in Washington that ban marijuana businesses altogether, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center. About 95 cities have adopted permanent zoning laws to allow marijuana license holders to open a business in town, though the rules vary between cities.

For example, Woodland allows marijuana production and processing businesses to open in the city, but it prohibits retail shops, while Longview and Kelso allow all three types of cannabis businesses.

The Washington CannaBusiness Association advocates for the growth of the state’s marijuana industry, including in small towns, said Aaron Pickus, the organization’s spokesman. In mid-2018, the group celebrated the success of marijuana business in Raymond, a Pacific County city with about 3,000 residents, he said.

Nonetheless, some small cities remain skeptical about the legal marijuana market, Pickus said. So the group helps its members with “engaging with their local elected leaders in order to share the economic and community benefits of fostering the regulated cannabis industry locally.”

In Castle Rock there were “competing pressures” dating back to the legalization of medical marijuana, said City attorney Frank Randolph.

“The city’s citizens seemed to be evenly split on the issue, based on who showed up at the hearings and spoke,” Randolph said. “On the ‘pro’ side, there was a lot of testimony about its medicinal value. On the ‘anti’ side, there was tremendous concern about its impacts on youth.”

The changes to Castle Rock’s code were “perfect timing” for Savage, she said. She was coming off an unsuccessful attempt to sway Woodland City Council members to overturn that city’s ban, and she was quickly losing time to hold onto her license, she said.

“When the council in Woodland told me they were not going to overthrow the moratorium, Castle Rock had literally lifted their moratorium a month prior,” Savage said.

The approved code changes allow marijuana shops to open only on the “edges” of the city, Dohrn said. These include the industrial region southwest of Exit 48, a small sliver east of West Side Highway along PH10 and the highway business area east of I-5 off Exit 49.

Included in that area is the Crossroads Plaza, a small shopping center off Mount Saint Helens Way. The center is home to Mount Saint Helens Gifts, The Flower Pot, Mount Saint Helens Cellars tasting room — and now Tru Greenthumb.

“Are we happy it’s here? I’m going to say no, we really aren’t. But it is what it is. … It’s legal in Washington,” said Sue Pulse, owner of the Flower Pot. She added that Tru Greenthumb doesn’t “fit the mix” of the other stores in “our little strip mall.” But neither did the liquor store that leased the same shop years ago, and the plaza businesses survived that, she said.

Pulse said her new neighbor hasn’t deterred her customers from stopping in the Flower Pot as usual, but it has caused “shock and surprise” with her shoppers, she said.

“My customers have not been positive about it,” Pulse said. And the new store, which is “busier all the time,” hasn’t brought in any extra business for its neighbors, Pulse said.

But business is good for Savage, who is pleased with the community’s response to her shop so far, she said. Her customers are happy they no longer have to make the 20-minute trek to Longview to purchase their marijuana products, she said.

“Everyone is super, super nice, and we hired employees from out here and they are all pretty amazing, as well,” Savage said.

The shop owner even remains positive despite some kickback Tru Greenthumb received on social media, she said. Savage recognizes the “stigma around marijuana,” and expects some “hiccups down the road” with people who “don’t like what we are doing here.”

“People are going to be negative about it. That just comes with the industry,” she said. “I’m never going to let someone hurt my feelings because they don’t want my shop here. We are not a bunch of druggies. That’s not what this is.”

Mayor Helenberg declined to share his opinion about the shop, but he did emphasize that Tru Greenthumb meets all the city’s criteria for a marijuana shop.

“It’s just another business,” he said.

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