Charles Feick and James Harrison never expected to see the end of what they call “the great marijuana prohibition” in their lifetimes.
Both men say they have cultivated the drug for decades without running afoul of law enforcement. Now they’re coming out in the open, hoping to help the state form sensible rules for the newly legal industry and quash the black market.
While the state passed Initiative 502 in November of last year, and personal possession of small amounts of marijuana became legal in December, the state is still wading through the process of creating a legal process for commercial cultivation and distribution of the drug. The Liquor Control Board has held public forums all over the state, seeking input on new rules it expects to take a full year to finalize.
Feick and Harrison have assigned themselves the task of providing guidance and insight on existing black market processes and growing standards, even submitting an extensively researched application prototype for would-be growers, requiring disclosure of criminal history, tax records and a full background check.
They’ve formed a group of about 100 growers from the Grays Harbor area — free of drug convictions — called the Northwest Growers Association, which they hope will serve as one of the first professional organizations and political action groups for the industry. It will also be an engine for an elaborate, legal grow operation they hope to form in Grays Harbor County.
For Harrison, growing was a personal hobby and a gift for friends suffering from cancer, while Feick got his start in the bustling trade in his native Hawaii in the 1970s.
“The state of Hawaii was world famous for its product, Maui Wowie, Kona Gold. Everybody grew it in Hawaii,” Feick said. “That was a very easy thing to do back in the ’70s.”
He declined to guess what income his days in the drug trade brought him, saying only, “It commanded a high price. … In those days, it made life quite comfortable for me. It gave me my experience. Ever since those days, I’ve been following the technology.”
And that, Feick says, is why the state needs to engage growers who have experience: They’ve already gained the knowledge to grow the crop efficiently, and with no agricultural tax credits or crop insurance, that could be crucial to the survival of a legal industry.
The members of the association are all such individuals, who have kept their operations small, responsible and efficient, he argued.
“For those people who have survived (the war on drugs), they’re not criminals. These are community people, these are grandfathers … they never had any intentions of criminal empires,” Feick said.
Harrison came to the marijuana industry in a different way more than thirty years ago.
“Initially, it was a recreational in the very beginning for personal use. I’ve never been somebody that tried to pump out big poundages and make a big grow operation, it’s just been a personal thing for me and my cancer buddy. That’s kind of how a lot of the folks are out here,” he said.
After a career in construction, he’s found it’s the only thing that controls the pain of torn ligaments, bulging discs, bad knees and arthritis.
“It’s about the only way I can sleep at night and stay moving around all day long,” Harrison said.
Both Harrison and Feick have medical marijuana endorsements and may legally grow small amounts of the drug for personal use.
They hope their association will encourage other experienced growers to “come out of the woods” and help.
“We want to promote it in a positive manner. It’s not a bunch of dreadlocked people running around singing hippy songs. We’re talking people who are using this as a method to change issues — pain regulation, anxiety, just being able to eat after chemotherapy. These are some of the extensive beneficial factors that I personally like to be involved with,” Harrison said. “We’re farmers. I think that’s one of the ways you have to look at it.”
By coming out into the open and participating in the process, they hope to take the legal risk out of growing, avoid competing with the state as it gets into the business, and open up a larger market. The two have already formed two corporations, one with the goal of purchasing land and building structures to form a large, local growing operation, the other which will obtain the permitting to grow the drug once that’s available.
“The only way to beat the black market is to imitate its model and regulate it,” Feick said. And who better to explain how to catch people circumventing the law than those who’ve done it successfully for decades.
“We consider ourselves a very valuable asset,” he added.
The association aims to offer an apprenticeship program to help amateur growers learn the skills to produce a high-quality product, much like an apprenticeship in a trade. That program would have its own fee, and membership to the association will cost an annual fee of $500, plus the cost of a background check. Feick emphasized that anyone who loves to grow should get involved with the industry, but for his organization, drug or violent criminal convictions would likely preclude them from membership.
“The association would find no benefit in associating with anyone who has taken that path,” he said.
Feick has traveled to several of the public forums around the state, and said he’s already been approached by private investors interested in the operation. He expects purchasing the necessary land, buildings and equipment will take several million dollars, but is optimistic his investors would be able to handle that. He declined to identify them because the deals are not yet final.
At the Feb. 7 forum in Vancouver, Wash., Feick submitted his version of a grower’s license.
“They were very enthusiastic. We’re the first group to come out and actually submit something, and what we submitted does not even exist in template in the state,” he said. “It’s a great thing the liquor board is being so open minded about this, they’ve done a great job.”
Feick and Harrison are dedicated to the idea of investing locally and bringing a positive, well-regulated economic stimulus to the area.
“I love Aberdeen. Aberdeen is a beautiful city. The people here are just so friendly and so cool, I cannot find another place to live. I’ve found my place here,” Feick said. “We can utilize this moment as an opportunity to help promote commerce and a good economy in the State of Washington as well as tax revenue for the city or the county.”
The association will hold its first public meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 16 in the community room of the SouthShore Mall. For more information, visit northwestgrowersassociation.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.