SEATTLE — Wombat sat in his car in a Wallingford parking lot, waiting to make a drug deal.
Shannon, 33, hopped in, her first time buying pot from the delivery service that Wombat — not his real name — works for. It’s called Winterlife and because of its questionable legality, its employees use animal pseudonyms, such as Otter, Owl and Fox.
Shannon showed Wombat her ID. He showed her a couple different strains of pot in clear tidy packages and an array of pot-laced cookies, truffles and chocolate bars. She bought a quarter-ounce of Purple Wreck for $80 and several edibles for $25. This wasn’t medical marijuana. This was the newly legal recreational variety.
Shannon didn’t want to disclose her full name and occupation. But she did nothing illegal, according to Washington’s voter-approved recreational-pot law.
The law allows adults to possess up to an ounce of pot and a pound of marijuana-infused edibles. Where and how they got the products are not legally relevant, said Alison Holcomb, chief author of the law and criminal-justice director at the ACLU of Washington.
Winterlife is filling a void, said Evan Cox, one of the company’s founders and owners. Pot consumers have been in limbo ever since Washington’s new law took effect in December 2012. They can legally possess weed but there’s no place for them to legally buy it until state-regulated stores open in late spring or summer.
Winterlife isn’t the only service offering delivery of recreational pot. Others can be found in Craigslist ads, including Raccoons Club, a Winterlife spinoff.
But Winterlife is the most prominent with its advertising, appearances in local media and sophisticated website. Winterlife has more than 1,000 customers, said Cox, AKA “Possum.”
“It’s so convenient,” Shannon said. “It’s as easy as ordering pizza but faster.”
But services that now sell recreational pot are committing a felony under state law, Holcomb said. Only state-licensed businesses can sell marijuana.
Cox acknowledged that he’s taking a calculated risk. He believes Winterlife’s precautions and overarching policy of “no kids, no shipping and no BS” makes his business legally defensible.
The Seattle Police Department may not go after Winterlife, according to a spokesman. “It’s not legal. It undermines the spirit of the law. But like anything else, our department takes all the complaints and dedicates our resources in a way that makes sense and is going to be most impactful,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
He compared the delivery services to speeding drivers. “They’re doing about six miles over the limit on the freeway. They’re banking they’re not going to get stopped,” Whitcomb said.
In previous stories about Winterlife on TV and in The Stranger newspaper, Cox hasn’t used his full name or allowed himself to be clearly photographed. But emboldened by such comments from the police, he was willing to do both for The Seattle Times.
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“Hey it’s Wombat at Winterlife.”
Wombat was on to his second delivery, a little after noon, on a recent day. The new customer he called lives in the suburbs and Winterlife only delivers in Seattle. They arranged a meeting in the University District.
Wombat, 25, is a culinary-school graduate. He’s extremely polite, well-groomed and always uses his turn signals. He was a customer himself, he explained, built a relationship with his delivery guy, Otter, and couldn’t turn down the opportunity, he said, to make good money at Winterlife as its business grew.
He picked his own animal name. He wanted something to distinguish him from the Bear and Bull, Owl and Elk.
His mom is nervous about the job, he said. “I tell her it’s as legal as can be at the moment.”
Wombat gets paid a percentage of what he sells. Some days he sees 10 customers; on others it’s more like 30. Most people buy quarter-ounces, he said, which tend to run about $80. Many customers tip as well.
“I think there’s more risk of robberies than being busted by Seattle police,” he said.
Wombat hasn’t been robbed. But Cox said he was held up at gunpoint. Since then the company has done better at screening customers, he said.
Thieves tend to reveal themselves in questions they ask and in other ways, Wombat said. “We have filters for weeding out nefarious customers,” Cox said.
About 30 percent of Wombat’s customers are happy to have him come to their homes, he said. The rest prefer to rendezvous at public sites, especially cautious first-time customers and tourists.
Wombat met Obie, 49, in a parking lot near Interstate 5.
Obie, who didn’t want his full name used, said he learned about Winterlife through friends on Facebook.
After 27 years of abstaining, Obie said, he’s eager to try pot again now that it’s legal and drug testing is less likely at his job.
He’s tired of waiting for the state stores to open, he said. “What good is it being legal if you can’t get it? What’s the point?”
In terms of selection and prices, Shannon said Winterlife is “awesome.”
She feels the quality of her neighborhood dealer’s weed has recently slipped. “My guy is going to have to up his game if he wants to stay competitive,” she said.
Obie is interested in the Critter Box, a $350 starter kit, that includes two kinds of marijuana, three kinds of hash, edibles, a vaporizer, a pipe and even wicks you use to ignite pot without having to inhale butane from a lighter.
Whenever a customer buys a Critter Box, Winterlife says it donates $100 to South Sound Critter Care, a nonprofit animal-rehabilitation center in Kent.
Obie purchases the package and tips Wombat.
“It’s about time,” Obie said of his legal bounty.
Although companies like Winterlife could compete with stiffly taxed and regulated legal pot businesses when they open, state officials don’t seem worried.
“We’d like to think local law enforcement would take care of local laws. Our job is to take care of licensees that fall under our system,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board, which is creating and overseeing a recreational marijuana system that plans to license 334 stores and 2 million square feet of farms.
Holcomb believes Seattle police will continue to tolerate delivery services. Initiative 75, approved by the city’s voters in 2003, made enforcement of adult use of marijuana the lowest priority for Seattle police, she noted.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg also appears less than eager to crack down. “We’re going to use our limited prosecutorial resources in cases that impact public safety. And because we’re in a legal limbo on marijuana we’d take into account what a reasonable jury would conclude,” said Ian Goodhew, Satterberg’s deputy chief of staff.
Winterlife may make that decision easier. Cox said he plans to transition into a state-licensed marijuana-processing business and away from delivery and retail.
Mark Kleiman doesn’t expect companies like Winterlife to survive once state stores open. Pot sold in stores will be more appealing to customers, Kleiman said, because it will be tested for impurities, certified as safe, and labeled with the percentage of THC, pot’s main psychoactive chemical, in it.
Winterlife’s pot comes from medical marijuana collective gardens in Washington, Cox said. But it doesn’t come with such assurances.And if illegal-delivery services ever become a competitive threat to state stores, Kleiman said the solution is pretty simple. “Take one of these guys away in handcuffs and they’ll stop,” said Kleiman, a UCLA professor who has been a state consultant on marijuana policy.
Deliveries in the legal system would be a great idea, he said. It would help state-sanctioned merchants overcome obstacles such as city and county bans on stores. Deliveries would allow residents in those jurisdictions to get weed without traveling far, or buying from an illegal dealer.
“Cities can say ‘no’ to a store,” he said. “But they can’t say ‘no’ to a sedan parked in front of a house when they make a delivery.”
Both he and Holcomb advocated for delivery during the state’s rule-making process.
But the Liquor Control Board opted against it. The law appears to explicitly prohibit deliveries, Holcomb said, and the board decided, for now, to be faithful to the letter of the law.
“It’s so convenient. It’s as easy as ordering pizza but faster.”It’s so convenient. It’s as easy as ordering pizza but faster.”