In this interview with Shango Los, Founder of Vashon Island Marijuana Entrepreneurs Alliance, we explore how an island near Seattle that has been zoned for cannabis cultivation is working hard to be the Napa Valley of cannabis.
[1:09] – Shango’s background.
[2:32] – How did Vashon Island become a place to grow cannabis?
[5:27] – How do Vashon Island residents feel about legalization?
[6:53] – Frictions for the small minority of residents that don’t approve the legalization.
[8:39] – Growing limitations for cultivators.
[10:26] – Shango gives tips on how to have a successful crop in the Pacific Northwest.
[13:15] – Shango talks about the Vashon Grown label.
[16:17] – What are residents embracing besides cultivation?
[19:34] – How do the black market growers and the new cultivators getting along?
[23:00] – Shango talks about things he would do differently if given the chance to go back.
[26:18] – Shango discusses the 25% excise tax in Washington.
[28:09] – Contact details for Shango and VIMEA.
Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday and Wednesday look for a fresh episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the leaders of the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at www.cannainsider.com. That’s www.cannainsider.com. Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity, when you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful, then you're ready. Ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at www.canninsider.com/consulting. Now here's your program.
Washington State’s Vashon Island, often referred to as Weed Island, has been designated as a place where cannabis will be allowed to be grown by state officials. We’re going to find out the challenges and opportunities facing Vashon Island today with our guest Shango Los, the Director of Vashon Island Marijuana Entrepreneur’s Alliance, also known by its acronym VIMEA. Welcome Shango.
Shango: Yeah thanks Matt. Thanks for having me on the show.
Matthew: I want to dive into what you’re doing on Vashon Island, but before we do that can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into this industry?
Shango: Sure. Well I’ve been involved in the cannabis industry in one way or another since 1989, but most of that has been as an enthusiast. In 2012 though when recreational marijuana was legalized here in Washington, my clients started to change. My primary career’ as a Brand Strategist and Product Developer. And I found that all my new clients here in Washington were interested in bringing legal cannabis products to the market. And here on Vashon Island we’ve been producing marijuana for years. But all of my clients who are coming to me were concerned with how they would be seen in the community because even though marijuana is grown here, not everyone’s in favor of it. And so they were resisting starting their businesses because they were concerned with how they’d be received in the community. And so I got involved with legal cannabis and started VIMEA as a way to do some outreach in favor of marijuana in the community, to make the island feel safer for Vashon Island growers.
Matthew: And can you help listeners understand how Vashon has become a place where residents will be growing cannabis. There is a sequence of events with the regulators and so forth. Can you just let us know how that unfolded?
Shango: Absolutely. It hasn’t been very linear or smooth here in Washington unfortunately, but the first thing that happened was 15 years ago Washington passed legal medical marijuana which really got folks talking about cannabis as medicine. Certainly people had been thinking about cannabis as a recreational intoxicant for a long time. But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that people really started thinking about what it could do for us as a holistic adaptogen for the human body. Then just two years ago in 2012 the state legalized recreational cannabis through I502, and that brought a whole new wave of folks interested in the money making aspects of marijuana, more than interested in either recreation themselves or using it as medicine.
However, you know, Vashon Island has been producing prohibition era marijuana for almost 40 years, and we’ve got a reputation far and wide for some of the best indica and unique growing practices anywhere. So it’s been something that’s been part of our culture for a couple of generations. But legally in Washington that landscape has begun changing just in the last 15 years.
Matthew: Now what is it like living on Vashon Island in terms of cultures and values and people? I mean, give us sense of how big the island is and what it’s like to live on the island.
Shango: Sure. Even though we’re close to Seattle, it’s very rural here. Vashon Island is a small island that it can only be reached via a 20 minute ferry from Seattle. So it’s a rural farming community, but we also have got easy access to Seattle both to buy fertilizer and hydro gear and lights, but also as a market for our produce as well. Vashon has the highest number of advanced degrees per capita than any US city. With that said, again our primary activity is organic and permaculture, agriculture.
The values of the community are pretty diverse. Some see Vashon as a vacation destination. Some see it as an artists’ enclave, but most everyone values the farms though because that’s usually what brings people to Vashon. They come to Vashon for whatever reason, and they get a taste of what it’s like to shop at a farm stand and buy organic and permaculture produce directly from the farmer without any middleman. And you see the health of the produce like you don’t in the grocery store. And people just tend to move here to be closer to that kind of eating experience. And so you know, we’ll talk a minute about kind of the culture split around marijuana on the island, but one thing that brings people together is the love of the rural living and love of the organic food itself.
Matthew: Where do Vashon residents stand in terms of favoring legalization versus say the rest of
Washington State as a whole?
Shango: Well when legalization was voted upon two years ago, 70% of the residents of Vashon Island voted in favor of it, where as the rest of the state was just above 50%. So when our King County officials, where we live, come out and talk to us about incorporating marijuana agriculture into our island, they speak to us with an assumption that we are in favor of it, and that’s probably why they zoned the entirety of our island for outdoor grows.
Matthew: Yeah that’s pretty crazy that they zoned the whole island.
Shango: Yeah it’s actually really humorous here. When we originally saw the maps, and we thought that the color chart was off because the color for an okay place was to be shaded green. And the entire island was shaded green, and we thought it was an error, but indeed it was not. It’s because the way that the zoning works. You have to be on agriculturally zoned land, and almost the entire island is.
Matthew: Well so there’s a culture of agriculture on the island. Is there anything else about the island? We’ve got 70% of the population that is in favor of legalization. You’ve also got an agriculture background. Is there anything else? And also for the other, the small minority that’s not in favor, is there any problems there? Is it causing some friction?
Shango: Well friction, yes. Not as much as some would have thought though. Mostly the folks who are concerned are concerned about marijuana getting into the hands of their kids. And so that’s something that you’d have to deal with on the island regardless of legalization because marijuana is just such a part of the island and was even in the prohibition era. I don’t think that the availability of cannabis on our island has increased at all with legalization. It’s just the same, you know, if you’ve got a full cup, you can’t fill the cup up any more. But I understand some of their concerns with specifically edibles.
We had an issue in the last year where edibles producer, EdiPure, was planning on moving to the island and purchasing the largest building on the island to grow and produce their candies and other edibles here. Well unfortunately EdiPure mostly shows their candies and gummy bears and things like that in their advertising, and that’s what the concerned parents focused in on. They didn’t want cannabis candy being produced on the island. And some folks pushed back against that, and we did quite a bit of outreach. In the end, EdiPure decided that the location wasn’t appropriate for them mostly because of the zoning laws here in King County. But it did cause a lot of grief in our small 10,000 person island, and it did cause a schism. Other than that though, people are pretty much behind the legalization of marijuana on the island, and especially as it relates to medicine. They’re just not as much in favor of the candy aspects of it.
Matthew: And how much are cultivators limited in how much they can grow.
Shango: Well that depends on what set of regulations you’re participating in. So for example many producers are medical producers, and so if you can pull together yourself and two other people, you can put your three medical authorizations together and grow up to 45 plants. And that’s what you see mostly here on Vashon Island. If you get a recreational license from the state, you can grow up to 30,000 square feet of canopy, which is a very significant grow. As of now we have one licensed grower on the island. We have five more that are in the licensing process, and we’ve got a whole sleuth of new folks that will be submitting license applications when they reopen the window, whenever that may be.
For most folks though, they are not legally allowed to grow. So the vast majority of folks are growing for themselves, for their medicine and that is strictly black market because in our state you’re not yet allowed to grow for personal consumption. So I would say the majority of the growers are black market, but they’re small growers. And then the next step up are medical growers of which there are many, many of those who are all around 45 plants. And then the newly arriving I502 growers which can have up to 30,000 square feet of canopy.
Matthew: And now being in the Pacific Northwest and having a strong tradition of growing outside as well, I’m sure it presents with the moisture some specific problems and issues. Is there any tips or advice you can give people that are growing in those type of geographies on how to have a successful crop?
Shango: Yeah you’re right about that. Where we live in the Northwest is not necessarily the most opportune place to grow. Even our friends over in Eastern Washington have got longer, hotter summers than we do here on Vashon Island. The big advantage we have is just that we’ve been doing it for so long. We’ve got a collection of artisan growers who have been collecting genetics, and have been designing their own adaptive land races over the last 30 to 35 years. When you get a set of genetics that you really like and you can really work with, and then you grow that and you seed it year over year, your best plants, what you end up with are plants that have got a short blooming cycle. They are resistant to mold and rain. And because of our short seasons we tend to specialize in indicas because the sativas just simply don’t have the time to finish outdoors. And really outdoors is the preferred way.
I mean people have had to move indoors because of law enforcement and the prohibition of it. But I would say that the tendency towards Vashon growers to grow them under the sun so that you can get a wider terpene profile, better taste and you know certainly better the environment. We’ve got an island full of environmentally aware folks. And as much opportunity as people can find to decrease their electrical use, the better. So what we find, we collect genetics from Vancover BC, Canada and from Oregon and some stuff from Humboldt. And then we year over year adapt it for our region, and that’s what people tend to use. People don’t flirt with a lot of strains. We’ll find a strain and work with it year over year to adapt it for where we are which is not so as common in Seattle where a lot of our friends are, because a lot of our friends in Seattle are growing indoor. And so with indoor they can grow seeds from anywhere, and strains come and go a lot more quickly in Seattle than just 20 minutes away out here on Vashon where truly is handled more like marijuana agriculture than it is a seed could grow in a warehouse.
Matthew: Now you want to create a Vashon Grown label which sounds like a really good idea. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and maybe some thought on how other communities can do something like that because that really maybe adds a value? And also as time goes on, you know, you want some way to stand out and maintain a profit margin as more and more cannabis comes on the market. So if you could just talk a little bit about the Vashon Grown label.
Shango: Sure. So we see Vashon Island as an Appellation region like Napa is for wine or Champaign, France is for Champaign, or even our friends in Humboldt County for cannabis flower as well. All of these places produce a certain kind of product that people can rely on that region to grow. And with Vashon Island Cannabis because we are primarily are growing outdoors, we’ve developed these seeds that really explode in our environment, and just the quality of indicas that come from our island. People have come to know that they can rely on Vashon Island for high quality, organic marijuana for, you know, either recreation or for medicine.
And you know when I started VIMEA originally it was to help make the island feel more comfortable for growers so that people would come out of the woodwork and participate in the community as a grower. But as people came out and growing became more normalized on the island, we moved into more of a marketing stage because VIMEA the organization itself does not produce cannabis. We are a community outreach and marketing trade organization. And so we do things to support the growers themselves. We do things like have a booth at the farmers’ market where people who have questions about cannabis medicine or growing or the law or how to keep it out of their kids’ hands, so they can come and ask questions. And we do all sorts of, we do a monthly visiting expert series so people can get educated.
And so by doing all of this we’re creating an environment that is beneficial for growing cannabis. And so when you feed and water this environment it grows, and so we extend that into the national community by telling people what we’re doing, and people start to understand that. I understand, you know, if I want a pinot noir of a certain kind I’m going to go the Willamette Valley region or Oregon. But if I want really fantastic, organic, outgrown indicas, well I want that from Vashon Island. Also we’ve got a great deal of folks here who are into creating value out of product medicines, you know, salves and tinctures and things like that. And when you see Vashon Island Produced on labels people just feel like they can trust it a little bit more because we are rural, and we have been doing this for a long time, and we’re not just a new company that’s popped up, you know, just because of the I502 recreational movement.
Matthew: Now you mentioned that some of the residents are creating tinctures and salves and things like that. Is there any other residents that are doing things besides cultivation that are somehow embracing the end of prohibition on the island?
Shango: Sure. Well we have so many homeopathic healers on the island. It’s amazing. We’ve had people who are making non-cannabis tinctures for generations to heal themselves and their families. And a lot of those folks they used cannabis as medicine but just didn’t talk about it to many people because it wasn’t as socially acceptable yet. But now we find that those same holistic, herbal healers who were using other plants are now feeling more comfortable to use cannabis in their tinctures and their salves, in their lip treatment. What do you call it, like the chap stick, you know, lippy, and in all these different applications. And because they are already so experienced with making these medicines with other plants, just swapping out to cannabis is an easy jump.
Yeah I would say, you know, we’ve Vashon Botanical Society who produces a lot of things for the medical dispensary market here on the island. And Vashon Seed and Mercantile which produces medical specific genetics for the rest of the Northwest. So with the island already being rural it was just a natural extension of what we do here.
Matthew: How have people from Seattle and off the island shown interest in what’s going on in Vashon?
Shango: Well first of all they love to get on a ferry and come over here and buy some mota directly on the island. We’ve got a medical dispensary here that specializes in Vashon Grown flower. Also, you know, it’s just available around the island. It’s not all that hard. So people enjoy either coming over and staying at a bed and breakfast, and coming across some cannabis while they’re here. We’ve got a beautiful island with lots of trails and they experience those. And if you’re here at the right time of year you can go to the beach and watch orca, you know, killer whales off the coast and that’s great.
Matthew: That’s awesome.
Shango: So you know it’s very much a wonderful vacation-y place to be, you know, even if you just come for a weekend. And you know, living on an island has got a certain aspirational quality to it. And so I think that’s one of the reasons why Vashon Island marijuana is so appreciated in Seattle proper because when you’re smoking organ cannabis from Vashon your headspace is that of an islander. And you’re like, you know, this came from the island and this was grown with care for me, and you know it kind of warms the soul a little bit. And I think that’s part of the image and the marketing that people enjoy about Vashon Island is that Vashon’s a calm, good place with nice folks and they grew this cannabis just for me.
Matthew: Now how are growers that have been doing it in the black market way getting along with maybe the new cultivators? Are they the same parties, are they kind of cross pollinating or are they kind of like the Montague’s and the Capulet’s where they’re totally separate?
Shango: That’s a really good question actually. They don’t interact all that much honestly. The prohibition era farmers are still pretty spooked. We had DEA enforcement and helicopters, you know, all through the 90’s. And you know the bigger prohibition era farmers on the island, it’s how they afford the clothes for their kids to go to school. And it’s very real and important income for these folks. And so the larger prohibition era growers they simply haven’t come out of the closet. They are still invisible. They have not picked up medical licenses. They don’t have medical authorizations because they don’t trust the government. And with what we’ve seen here with enforcement over the last 30-40 years there’s good reason for them to feel sketchy about coming out into the light so quickly, and so I don’t blame them.
So luckily they reach out to me because they know that I’m a good resource for them and I’m not a threat. And so I get to go and visit grows and help them get in contact with the people they want to get in contact to get exotic genetics. But mostly they stay pretty invisible. The medical growers, many of them are prohibition era growers who have decided to take the risk to be a little more public, and those folks are very social. They work together, they work with VIMEA, and we get together with bulk orders for certain fertilizers or to have a big truck of soil, specialty soil to be brought to the island or things like that. And so the medical folks, there’s much more social in that.
When people come out to the VIMEA meetings I would say that it’s a vast majority medical growers with some prohibition growers, you know, mixed in. And then you’ve got the mom and pop folks and that’s the part that’s taking off are folks who just feel confident to grow, you know, six or ten plants for their own use on their property, mixed in with their other crops. And those folks are downright gregarious about it because with the possession of marijuana being legal here and with the amount that they’re producing being so low, they just feel like there’s little to no risk. And so you’ll get folks that are just nice neighbors and you go over to their house for tea on their porch and you just happen to see they’ve got six nice plants out in the back. And, you know, it’s a little bit a joke to them, but they’re not really concerned about it anymore.
It’s not like it used to be where if your neighbor knew that you were growing five or six plants that they throw you under the bus and call the sheriff. I mean if you call the sheriff there’s nothing going to happen anymore. And so people are feeling much more comfortable to grow for their own personal use, and I think that’s part of the normalization of what’s happening where people are just, the fear is going away. And as the fear goes away, we’ll see an increase in diversity of growers and what they’re growing and of the medicines. And I think that will be to everyone’s benefit.
Matthew: If you were to do this all over again and start from the beginning with the advantage of hindsight, what are one or two things you would do differently that you might suggest to other communities that might be in a similar situation?
Shango: Well that actually brings up two different lines. So I’m going to give you two different answers. The first thing is that I would probably choose to use the word cannabis in the organization’s name instead of marijuana because the primary complaint I’ve gotten from people is by using the word marijuana and what they believe it to be a negative term and a slur which I was never aware of. And where I was brought up it was just what it was called. It was just a colloquial term. But as the organization gets more national and international exposure, I think I probably would have used the word cannabis instead of marijuana in the name.
That aside, other communities in the country are actually reaching out to us to learn from the mistakes that we have made and how they best can integrate marijuana agriculture into their community. And the thing that they invite me most to speak about is I invite folks in these communities that just approaching legalization to embrace their local pot farmer. Because you know, we really want members of the community who are already upstanding, friendly, good folks who are involved with the schools or their churches or they already own a business. These are the people that we want moving into the legal marijuana sector to produce the product.
What we don’t want is that a stigma continues to exist around farming cannabis so that the good folks in the community shun it and stay out of the game. Thus making the only people who are interested in growing cannabis the fringe folks who already may not care about the community values. And because they don’t care about the community values is why they’re choosing to grow. What we encourage folks to do is if you’re in favor of cannabis, if you understand that it’s healing, if you understand that the prohibition of it hurts our economy and is racist, go to your neighbor and say, hey neighbor I just want to let you know that if you got into the cannabis business I would be in favor of it.
Take a proactive position to just openly speak to folks and saying I’m into it. So go ahead and feel comfortable to grow neighbor of mine because if we don’t make our communities open to cannabis when it does come, and it’s going to come. We can see through the most recent elections, that the cat’s out of the bag, the genie’s out of the bottle. This is going to be national now, and the best way that we can integrate it is if communities are open to it so that good community folks who have got the entrepreneurial knowledge and hopefully they can partner with an experienced grower. They get together and do something. So the profits are going back into the community and the company itself is working in a way that benefits the community.
Matthew: Now switching gears a little bit to regulation and tax issues. There’s a 25% excise tax for cannabis in Washington. Does that seem punitive and unfair, and what has been the reaction to that?
Shango: Well it’s actually even worse than that. It’s actually 75% because it’s a 25% tax at each level. So the grower gets taxed 25% on their sale, and then when the producer sells to the retail store there’s a 25% tax there, and then when finally purchased by the end user there’s a 25% tax there. Yeah it’s huge. And so unfortunately the I502 recreational marijuana that is on the market now is exceptionally expensive. You know it’s $25 to $35 a gram right now. And while we do expect that number to decrease as more growers get licensed and there’s more in the market, the going price is $10 in the medical and black markets. So it really makes it hard for anyone to see why to go to an I502 recreational store and pay $25 to $30 for that gram when you can actually get a better gram for $10 at the medical shop.
So most of us expect that the 75% tax will be amended more than like this next legislative session and to decrease the burden. Some of the bills that I have seen that have been prereleased for this legislature do that, and we’ll have to see how it goes. But they’ll have to increase the number of I502 legal growers first off to be able to decrease that price, and then they’ll probably have to decrease the taxes a bit as well.
Matthew: In closing, how can listeners learn more about what you’re doing on Vashon Island and follow your work personally, Shango?
Shango: Sure. You can go to our website which is www.vimea.org, and we’ve also got a fantastic Facebook page where you can get some flavor about what’s going on here and see some great photos, and that is www.facebook.com/vimea. And I’m Shango Los, and if you and your community are interested in learning more about the experiences that we’ve had and how you can benefit from the good things and the bad things that we’ve done, feel free to reach out and we’ll see if we can help you help each other.
Matthew: Well Shango, thanks for being on CannaInsider today. We really appreciate it, and we also appreciate all the work you’re doing to help the community where you are in Vashon. That sounds like a lot of fun work you’re doing.
Shango: Well thank you very much. I’m a fan of the show, and I’m grateful to be on it, and thank you for hosting me.
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