Pot businesspeople face risks and challenges, but could reap a lucrative reward.
WELCOME TO THE weird world of legalized marijuana, with a cast of characters as novel and interesting as the product they’re crazy enough to sell.
Entrepreneurs include a World War II veteran born in 1921 and a University of Washington student born in 1993, plus felons, dreamers and a cupcake queen. Then there’s this bizarre trio: a 79-year-old nationally ranked bird-watcher, a 36-year-old surfer, and former Seahawks star Marcus Trufant, who together own a pot shop in Lacey, one of the state’s more than 150 (and growing) recreational marijuana stores.
It’s always messy to build something from scratch. About half of small businesses fail within five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and few face as many complications as the marijuana industry.
Taxes are steep. Laws and rules for the strictly regulated business have been in flux since the state’s voters legalized pot in November 2012. Some cities and counties have banned businesses. Many can’t get access to banking. Although unlikely, if the federal government changes its mind on pot, it could shutter businesses and press felony charges.
But those bold enough to launch into this uncertain world see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where others balk at risk.
Les LeMieux, a felon convicted of selling drugs, seeks vindication. Pot nearly took everything away. Now, it could set up his family for good.
Evan Cox and his wife, Charity, both high-school and college dropouts, see pot as a means of upward mobility.
Jody Hall, the founder of Cupcake Royale, wants to reshape pot culture.
They’re all just getting started, but what a long, strange trip it’s already been.
LES PAUL LEMIEUX crosses the Yakima River several times a week to deliver marijuana. There’s really no way to avoid it.
For LeMieux, the river reminds him of a different time, when the D.A.R.E. program was in full swing, the president wouldn’t admit to inhaling and dealing pot could land you in jail. Or worse.
But he feels a connection with the river. It’s where his “baptism into the world of men” took place.
The way LeMieux tells it, in 1997 he slept with a woman named Wendy, making a fellow drug dealer jealous. Later, he heard a rumor the whole thing was recorded on a nanny camera.
Court records, though, don’t tell a Shakespearean story of a jealous lover.
Instead, the documents describe LeMieux arriving at the drug dealer’s house with a duffel bag filled with 30 pounds of marijuana. Another man, a former high school classmate, greeted him by thrusting a pistol to his sternum. The men ordered LeMieux to the floor, tied him up with speaker wire, blindfolded him with a T-shirt and stuffed him into his duffel bag and then into the back of a vehicle.
When they turned the ignition, LeMieux says he knew he was inside his Jeep because Soundgarden’s album “Down on the Upside” fired up on his cassette player.
The dealers drove for hours while LeMieux begged for his life. They threw him into the Yakima River — still bound but out of the duffel bag — and left him to die.
According to court records, LeMieux floated down the river until he snagged a branch with his chin. He managed to break the wires around his feet and crawl back to shore and up to the road. A passing driver contacted police.
When officers arrived, LeMieux, his hands still tied behind his back, was hysterically yelling, “They tried to kill me!” A sheriff’s officer reported that LeMieux was “hypothermic, vomiting . . . and had ligature marks on both wrists and ankles.”
Wires — “my old nemesis” — make him uncomfortable. Memories can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder now, he says.
These days, to ease his mind, he smokes marijuana. He sells it, too — in the legal market now, but we’ll get to that later.
LeMieux has softened a bit with age. He no longer wears steel-toed boots. (“I thought if I got into a scrape, I might be able to kick my way out.”)
Now, he’ll follow up a text about a pot deal with a photo of his 10-year-old daughter’s community-theater costume.
LEMIEUX IS A RELIC from the black market. Other eager entrepreneurs started out in medical marijuana’s “gray” market. Then there’s Evan Cox, who began his business during the heady time when Seattle cops stopped caring about pot.
When voters approved legal marijuana, they left a gap. Legally, you could possess pot, but not sell it.
Cox, a high-school dropout with floppy dark hair, espresso-colored eyes and a scraggly beard, seized the moment in what he calls a “questionably legal business model.” That’s a generous description.
Cox and a friend spent about $5,000 on marijuana, and advertised on Craigslist.
“I really treated it as a business: Answering every phone call, fixing mistakes, calling people when you’re late,” he says.
Soon, he couldn’t keep up with his Shoreline College coursework because his phone buzzed so often. He dropped out to focus on his business, Winterlife Delivery.
The company’s clever social media presence, brazen illegal model and critter code names (Cox is “possum”) drew media attention. First, the Capitol Hill Seattle blog wrote about Winterlife. The Stranger and The Seattle Times followed. KING 5 ran a segment.
“Each time, we literally doubled in business,” says Cox, whose frankness made him a media darling.
At its peak in summer 2014, Cox employed more than 60 people. He says the company earned more than $4 million that year.
Then he shut it down. When legal stores opened last summer, Cox reckoned he’d worn out his welcome as an illegal delivery service. He feared the Seattle Police Department, which had publicly said Winterlife was not a priority, might change its mind. Plus, he didn’t want to cut into the business of legal stores, his future customers.
“We started seeing the writing on the wall. We always knew we were filling that gap,” Cox says. “If we were running around making money hand over fist and (the stores) were under heavy regulation, that would not reflect well on us.”
In November 2013, at his wife Charity’s urging, Cox applied for a license to process marijuana. After closing Winterlife Delivery, they spent months converting a tool shop in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood to make edibles and oils. They received their state license last December.
EVAN AND CHARITY face fierce competition in the nascent marijuana market. Jody Hall, who founded Seattle’s Cupcake Royale 11 years ago, has partnered with one of the state’s best-selling edibles company, Db³, to launch The Goodship Co., a line of marijuana-infused baked goods and confections.
She brings the same Instagram-ready sensibility to her pot products as she does the cupcakes she sells in six Seattle stores.
Hall spent 11 years at Starbucks before she started Cupcake Royale. She understands how to engineer food, and is politically connected after campaigning for marriage equality and health care reform.
Although she doesn’t have marijuana industry experience, marketing comes naturally.
Marijuana makes her “feel like I’m more open,” she says. “I have more creative ideas. It makes me laugh, declutters the brain.”
Now that it’s legal, Hall wants to marry marijuana with art to form a new culture. She’s leaning on members of Seattle’s arts community, like Greg Lundgren, to help.
Hall hired Lundgren, who owns Vito’s Restaurant & Lounge on First Hill, to direct a series of bizarre photo shoots with Seattle luminaries “on the Goodship.”
To be “on the Goodship” is Hall’s language for getting high. To be “pre-boarded” on the Goodship is to show up to an event stoned.
Hall and Lundgren are planning a “field trip” series for people who are pre-boarded: Art crawls, museum tours and even sports.
She’s organizing a TED-talk-like series called The Goodship Academy of Higher Education, where people can speak about their passions with a pre-boarded audience.
“The idea was to break away from that idea that you get stoned and you sit and watch TV or eat a whole cheese pizza by yourself,” says Lundgren. “The Goodship is trying to really establish what being high is about and looking at it from a way of elevating human experience in the way we interact with art, with technology, with each other.”
WHERE THE GOODSHIP seeks to manufacture a new pot culture, Evan and Charity Cox lean on their roots for their renamed business, Winterlife Cannabis.
“We carried over what brought us here — the critter names,” explains Evan, referring to the animal code names for each staffer.
Save for the purchase of a dune buggy, a motorcycle and trips to New York, Evan and Charity bet all the money made in the illicit market on the legal one.
“We’re starting all over,” Evan says. “Totally different business model.”
At the point they closed the business, Evan says, “I was sitting on three-quarters of a million dollars. And it took that to get my license.”
On a spring visit to Winterlife, the company is a hive of activity. The “kingfisher,” who would not divulge his full name, extracts THC from cryogenically frozen marijuana using alcohol. Tubes carry the mixture to a glass globe that rotates and heats it.
In an adjacent room, Andy Weyrick, “the crow,” feeds baking sheets through a machine that rhythmically drops dough. Ben Patton, “the star-nosed mole,” loads each sheet on a rack. They’ll bake about 1,500 cookies later. A single cookie fetches about $12 in stores.
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Charity, “the owl,” runs the company’s creative department in an unrenovated part of the building, and leads a discussion about social-media strategy, the company’s marketing materials and enticing retailers to use Winterlife’s new ordering system. It’s boring. Add a few ties, you could mistake it for a meeting at Boeing.
Charity says she’s working her dream job.
A high-school dropout (“I didn’t like my principal,” she says), Charity twice dropped out of college for financial reasons before graduating from Shoreline College with a design degree. She says she worked a lot of crappy jobs over the years.
Marijuana might be her chance to do more than survive. “This isn’t going to happen again in our lifetime,” she says.
She dreams of a carefree life “hanging out in Central Park in Manhattan wearing five different hats and painting dogs,” she says. “Marijuana could be my ticket.”
LIKE THE COXES, LeMieux and his family are putting their chips on the new marijuana industry. He started his own marijuana sales company, Moon Bay, out of his North Bend town home earlier this year.
A Washington map dotted with red pins hangs on the wall. Each pin represents pot businesses — potential clients. On a dresser, LeMieux hides a double-bowled marijuana pipe underneath a model pirate ship. The pipe is a gift from business partner William J. Clinton (yes, it’s his real name. And he inhales).
The hiding place makes sense. Daughter Maddy “used to tell her friends I was a pirate,” LeMieux, 42, says of his line of work. “I said, ‘I’m a smuggler: Very different things.’ ”
Neither description really fits in the legal industry. LeMieux goes by “consultant” now, but acts more like a broker. All the titles sound rather stuffy for a guy whose business cards boast he’s been “slinging cannabis since 1991.”
Short, wiry and sporting a goatee, LeMieux’s fashion sense places him back in the grunge era. His new job’s pretty much the same as it was then, too.
Marijuana growers hire him as an independent contractor to broker sales of wholesale pot. Sometimes the businesses add him to their payrolls so he can help out with delivery.
Before legalization, LeMieux operated by his own rules.
“I don’t believe in the rule of law. I believe in the rule of law backed by morality,” says LeMieux, justifying his dealings. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with marijuana.”
Not everyone shared his worldview. He was convicted on drug charges for the second time in 1999 and served two years in federal prison. After being released, he reconnected with Wendy, and they married in 2003. Money has been a challenge.
He founded a corporate book sales company, but had to sell it when the recession hit. He and Wendy lost their Maple Valley home. The two separated for a stretch. His psychological problems from the kidnapping deepened from stress.
Until he got back to selling marijuana, LeMieux hadn’t worked in about five years. His wife paid the bills. He felt lost.
Now that he’s slinging again, his swashbuckling swagger has returned.
LeMieux says Moon Bay sold $100,000 of pot in a single day in May. “My phone is melting with incoming texts, calls and emails,” he writes in a text message.
Les and Wendy are so bullish on Moon Bay that she left her job as an escrow agent to become the company’s chief financial officer.
“If you have an opportunity to . . . do something grand and set yourself up for life and not have a hard life — why not do it?” asks Wendy.
Les put employment ads on Craigslist: (“You don’t have to smoke weed, but we prefer you do. . . . compensation: $10/hour to start, but the sky is the limit with this freaking company.”)
They’re taking the leap for their daughter. Wendy says, “He wants to send his little girl to Juilliard.” Les finds time in his schedule to search with Maddy for buried treasure. For some reason — and Les can’t put a finger on it — metal detectors fascinate Maddy.
“We haven’t found anything really valuable yet, but it’s fun to dig stuff up,” he says.
With luck, riches await.