WA: Cannabis Is Front And Center At CWU Economic Conference

Photo Credit: Karl Holappa

Many people enjoy wine tasting with their friends, and some cannabis producers envision a day where you could do the same thing with their product.

“We would love to have a direct-sale option as a farm, like a winery or a brewery,” producer Jeff McPhee said Friday at Central Washington University. “You could come down, purchase directly from a farm, you could sample product much like you would at a winery or brewery. We can help educate the consumer about how this process takes place.”

As exciting as that concept may sound to some, people within the industry agree that it won’t happen overnight.

“I think the Napa Valley model is amazing,” lab physicist Jeff Doughty said. “I would love to see that. It’s not going to come tomorrow, it’s not going to come next year. It’s a game of incrementalism.”

The discussion was part of an annual Economic Outlook Conference about cannabis organized by the CWU College of Business. Attendees included industry professionals, faculty and students. The conference provided analysis and insight on the industry in the form of presentations, as well as networking opportunities for attendees.

Steve Lerch, chief economist with the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, presented a state economic overview, and Rick Garza, director of the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board and a CWU graduate, presented on the regulatory environment surrounding the industry within the state. Two separate panels of retailers and producers answered questions from the audience.

Rob Hendrix spoke on the retailers panel. Hendrix and his wife own Cannabis Central in Ellensburg. The store was the first to open in the county.

Hendrix said getting into the business was not easy.

“For me there must have been 14 major hurdles, mountains to try to climb, the first of which was to make the decision to go forward,” Hendrix said. “It was literally the last day to submit your name to begin the process of qualifying for the lottery when my wife called and suggested that we do this. I said, ‘Have you fallen and struck your head?’”

Hendrix said the qualification process was meticulous. He remembered when his licensing agent called him in a panic because they had found a financial discrepancy on his bank records. The amount of the discrepancy was 23 cents.

“That was how difficult it was to navigate the process to be eligible for the lottery,” Hendrix said.


In the past, the CWU conference has focused on regional economic topics like wine, wind and water.

Christopher Mendez, CWU College of Business director of engagement and outreach, said the subject of cannabis has been discussed as a conference theme since recreational use was legalized within the state.

“Whenever we have Steve Lerch speaking, everybody wants to ask him about cannabis,” Mendez said. “Every year we kind of ask our leadership at the higher university level ‘Hey can we do this?’ and this was the first year we finally made some ground and they gave us the go.”

Mendez said the caucus took time to develop due to cannabis being viewed as a taboo, despite its legality. Regardless, the subject was popular.

“This was the first year where we’ve had as many students as industry members in attendance,” Mendez said. “I think that says a lot about cannabis as a discussion topic. As a staff member it’s great to create a forum for discussion, but when your students are really empowered and excited about the discussion topics it makes your job so much easier.”


Former Ellensburg mayor Rich Elliott, who opened the conference, said the approach to cannabis has changed dramatically in the past 30 to 40 years. He said Ellensburg is a perfect place to hold such a conference because of the city’s track record with the legal part of the industry.

“The point in which the state voters legalized cannabis, the city moved quickly and was one of the few communities in Eastern Washington really to provide the legal local framework for implementation of the initiative,” Elliott said. “We were able to open our doors, we were able to put an ordinance in place that moved that legal initiative forward in this community much sooner than any community in Eastern Washington.”

Elliott said the economic impact on the city has been noticeable.

“When this whole thing started, our sales were $1.3 million,” Elliott said. “Now, we are at over $6 million in this community. Our tax revenue generated has grown from $350,000 to $2.3 million just for the city of Ellensburg. Out of the $2.3 million that’s generated, we receive about $50,000 back.”

Cassie Koefod, who was part of a panel of CWU students that presented information about the industry, said she was impressed by the turnout for the event.

“The turnout and the participation has exceeded our expectations,” Koefod said. “It’s kind of common knowledge that people don’t participate as much, so I think that this topic in particular has sparked a lot of interest and it’s been exciting to see it happen.”

Mendez said the cannabis caucus will become a separate event from the conference in years ahead because of the high level of attendance. He also said the College of Business has plans to create a cannabis academic center. Grant funding has been received to begin studies at the center, Mendez said.

“I think the sky’s the limit at this point,” Mendez said.