Legal pot a quandary in town penned in by Canada

Bob Young / The Seattle Times /


POINT ROBERTS, Wash. — Larry Musselwhite wants to open the first, and likely the only, retail pot store in this oddly situated speck of Washington state.

“I get asked 10 times a week, ‘When you getting in the bud?’” said Musselwhite, owner of Larry’s Liquor Locker.

Maybe never.

Point Roberts, on the southern tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, is what’s known as a pene-exclave.

That means it’s hard to get to, says Mike Tomlin, one of 1,300 residents on The Point.

Through a quirk of geography and international relations, Canada stands between Point Roberts and the rest of Washington. When the border between the U.S. and Canada was drawn at the 49th parallel, it left the five-square-mile community in the U.S. — isolated and dangling from a bit of Canada.

To get to Point Roberts over land from Washington you have to cross the Canadian border and then the American border, going through two government checkpoints.

You can’t bring marijuana across the borders. Both federal governments prohibit it.

So Tomlin raised this question with state officials: How are adults on Point Roberts going to access their new rights to recreational pot, which was legalized by voter-approved Initiative 502?

No one expects to drive pot there. And transporting it by boat or airplane means entering waters or air governed by the U.S. federal government, which considers all forms of marijuana an illegal, dangerous drug.

Tomlin says he wouldn’t risk that.

That seemingly leaves one option for state officials now making rules to implement I-502.

They would have to license a grower, processor and retail store in Point Roberts, an unincorporated part of Whatcom County, so isolated that its residents can’t buy bras or shoes without leaving the country.

Those licenses may or may not be forthcoming.

“I can’t say at this point,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with implementing a regulated recreational-pot system untested on the planet.

The board is months away from figuring out how many pot stores will be sprinkled around the state and where they’ll be located.

But Point Roberts presents some particular challenges, says Randy Simmons, the Liquor Board’s marijuana project director. Entrepreneurs would have to find it worthwhile to open a growing business in such a small community.

And they’d have to be willing to open a business in a place so heavily patrolled by border agents that one resident said the community feels “occupied” by the feds.

In the defunct state liquor-store system, the board’s goal was to have 95 percent of the state population within a 15-minute drive of the state’s 362 stores.

But some stores in rural areas survived, Simmons noted, by selling things besides liquor, such as milk, bread and chain saws.

Under I-502, pot stores can’t do that. They must be stand-alone structures and can sell only marijuana products.

And the new law doesn’t specify how many stores there should be, or where.

A pot store in Point Roberts would be a problem only if Canadians were trying to smuggle legal Washington weed across the Canadian border, said Alison Holcomb, primary author of I-502.

“As a practical matter we’re not likely to see that problem, because typically we’ve seen marijuana smuggled south from Canada into the U.S., while cocaine and guns go north,” she said.

It’s not clear how the feds would react to growing and retail operations on Point Roberts.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice in Western Washington said all I-502 questions must go to headquarters in Washington, D.C.

A DOJ spokeswoman there responded to detailed questions with a terse statement: “The legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado are still under review by the Department.”

Point Roberts residents seem ready for recreational pot.

Of the 701 who voted on I-502, 76 percent marked their ballots in favor of legal weed.

Tomlin, for one, isn’t worried that it would increase crime in Point Roberts, where people leave their keys in their cars and their doors unlocked. He calls Point Roberts the country’s largest gated community.

“Pot arrests are rare. It’s not a public safety issue in this community,” said Meg Olson, news editor for the local newspaper, the All Point Bulletin.

The dilemma is nothing new, Olson said. “It’s an age-old Point Roberts problem with a different commodity.” Residents have faced similar obstacles with fireworks — legal in Washington, but illegal to bring across the Canadian border — and beef, during a mad cow scare a decade ago.

“We were beefless for a while,” Olson said.

Tomlin, 61, a retired pilot and current house husband, suffers from arthritis. He recently got a medical marijuana authorization. But there are no dispensaries on the Point. And he said he doesn’t know of anyone growing medical marijuana.

That leaves him in the same bind as with recreational pot. He’s legally allowed to possess it but has no way to get it.

He could grow his own medical weed, but his wife frowns on it. “I’d much rather have a store. I’d be a lot happier if Larry could sell me what I want,” Tomlin said.

Musselwhite, at the Liquor Locker, isn’t the only one eager to capitalize on legal weed.

Patti Monaghan-Hacker owns a bike rental and sales shop, Pedal Pushers. After I-502 passed, she decided to add inexpensive pipes and rolling papers to her inventory.

“We’re right in between two campgrounds,” she said of her shop. “We are a resort community, and people are pretty excited about the prospect of buying weed.”

The population swells to 5,000 in the summer, she notes, with lots of Canadians who have second homes in Point Roberts

And the community now supports seven stores that sell alcohol, Tomlin said. “If you could sell as much pot as liquor that’s a pretty damned good business.”