Chuckles still burst from corners of the room when a cannabis retailer is announced among the sponsors during Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce events.
It happened late last year during the annual Business Awards Showcase, and then earlier this year at the organization’s first quarterly luncheon.
“It’s a new industry,” Chamber President and CEO Brian Duvall says. “There’s going to be some challenges as people start to overcome the stigma and it becomes more widely accepted.”
While Walla Walla’s legal cannabis industry may still be finding its identity in the business community, there’s no doubt it has become an economic driver.
The January opening of A Greener Today-Walla Walla brought the community to legal capacity with three cannabis retailers. For that month alone, the combined three shops — including Walla Walla Weedery and Walla Walla Cannabis Co. — sold $698,763 in product to consumers. Of that, $188,717 went to the state’s excise tax.
More than $18 million in sales to consumers have been logged since the opening of the first shop in late 2015, according to industry website 502Data. Sales tax generation in that period is about $1.7 million.
“What other (small cluster) in this town is creating that kind of sales tax return?” said Ryan Armstrong, co-owner of Walla Walla Cannabis Co.
That’s not all: Combined, the three Walla Walla stores employ more than 30 people, offering health care stipends or some form of insurance access.
At the Cannabis Co., Armstrong said he and co-owner Amber Cole plan to pay employees up to $15 an hour within a year. And for every retail cannabis job, he said, a reported six ancillary jobs are created, from security to technology positions.
More than five years after voters legalized cannabis and two and a half years after Walla Walla’s first retail shop opened, there is no doubt consumers are finding their way to the selections of edibles, topicals, marijuana cigarettes, concentrates, flowers and more.
The state of Washington collected $319 million in legal cannabis income and license fees during fiscal 2017, according to figures from the state treasurer’s office. The vast majority of it — $315 million — was from the state’s marijuana excise, or sales tax. The fiscal year runs July 1-June 30.
The state’s industry includes 456 retailers and 1,313 producer/processors.
As each retailer finds its niche in the marketplace, it continues to seek its spot in the business community.
Becoming the first cannabis business to join the Chamber was one way for the Walla Walla Weedery to do it.
“Times are changing, and increasingly the public is recognizing that cannabis businesses are ‘legitimate,’” Weedery owner Chris Crew wrote in an announcement when the operation joined last September. “Pioneering a brand new industry brings its own set of challenges; but especially when the industry is formed at the end of a prohibition we then face a new set of stigmas that other industries may not. We work tirelessly to bring high quality and affordable products to market, but also to educate and inform the public about cannabis in an effort to erase the stigmas surrounding the greater cannabis community.”
Where culling out an identity among retailers is one thing, finding one in the broader community is another.
“Right now, everyone in the legal cannabis industry are pioneers, and while that does make for an amazingly exciting era of opportunity, it’s also been hard to navigate how we collectively cultivate a new industry while simultaneously legitimizing ourselves to a public that has been told for so long that we are bad. It’s sometimes a challenge,” Weedery spokeswoman Jerica Pender said.
Becoming a Chamber member, donating to the Blue Mountain Humane Society Fur Ball fundraiser and creating a pet food drive for that operation are among efforts the business has made to assimilate.
“We are finding ways to ‘show up’ for the community, but it’s been a slower process for us I think, than for other types of businesses,” Pender said.
For Walla Walla Cannabis Co., which also joined the Chamber, a route through the arts has provided a path to participation that has benefited local music and marijuana at a time when both are making their way.
The Main Street business sponsored a tour for Planes on Paper, the Yakima-based folk duo of Navid Eliot and Jen Borst. The band has played numerous times in Walla Walla, and Eliot met Cannabis Co.’s Cole when he also worked as a booker for the now-closed Main Street Studios.
Their budding partnership was detailed in Dope Magazine as a shining affiliation that helped bring new music to the masses, from a retailer finding social acceptance in a county that voted against the legalization of the product it sells.
“Venues are struggling, people are struggling to pay ticket prices, bands are having a harder time figuring how they can play the small markets,” Eliot said in the article. “We proudly tell people that our show was presented by Walla Walla Cannabis Co., and ask that they remember that next time someone says, ‘But what did legalization do for OUR community?’ It kept art alive in your small town, at least for one more night.”
The hope is that more such relationships can be created as cannabis is de-stigmatized and businesses find a way to be contributors in the broader community.
“We’re professionals, we’re believers, we’re small-business owners,” Armstrong said.
“We’re trying to create a space and a forum and a narrative around cannabis that is truly mainstream.”