Amidst the sparsely populated hillsides of unincorporated King County, a new medical cannabis farmer's market has opened between Black Diamond and Enumclaw.
Deidre Finley is the owner of MMJ Universe, an airy and rustic setting just off of State Route 169 where during market weekends, live music plays amidst a green house area and garden and gift center where patients can find the cannabis products they need.
It's a different setting for a medical marijuana farmer's market than most in the Seattle area are used to, she said. The country atmosphere presents a safe and soothing place of refuge for patients. It's a huge contrast to the other farmer's markets in the area in White Center, downtown Tacoma and Yelm.
Product of Soul-Searching
MMJ Universe sits on Finley's 11-acre property that she's owned for the last 13 years. When she first purchased the land, a nursery was already on site for her to pursue a business in ornamental horticulture.
Finley had no intention at the time to go into the medical marijuana business, but as the economy turned and people stopped prioritizing landscaping for more pressing financial needs, she experimented with several ways to stay afloat herself, including establishing an assisted living business, a doggy day care and even just renting the facility out. Nothing work out. "I certainly had a few years of soul-searching," she said. "But this is my home. I love it here and I wanted to stay here."
Medical cannabis was a plan B, she said. Finley said she learned all she could about the industry, consulted legal experts and volunteered to stand at vendor booths at other farmer's markets in the Seattle area to understand its dynamics.
When the Drug Enforcement Administration in August sought to shut down 23 Western Washington medical marijuana businesses because of their proximities to schools and/or park zones, Finley sprung to action to approach several of them and get MMJ Universe open, which it did at the end of September. This is 'a home to the homeless,' she said of the vendors she's picked to man her farmer's market.
The Right Reasons
The Kind Alternative Medical Collective in Preston was on that list of DEA-shuttered businesses and also one that Finley invited to operate on her property.
Finley was picky about her vendors - she had to be given the uncertain political atmosphere concerning medical marijuana in Washington state. Kind Alternative owner Jocelyn admits there are certain businesses within the medical marijuana industry where it's clear the owner is in it to make money; the quality of products can be questionable; all of that opens up vulnerabilities for the business owner especially where state and federal laws collide.
For Jocelyn, it was about helping people. Though the DEA's warning letter she received in August gave owners 30 days to close down, staff shut down early because they wanted to protect their patients in case agents seized their private information ahead of the closure date.
Having worked in the medical field for 20 years, Jocelyn said she continues her work at Kind Alternative because it represents better treatment of patients than in a traditional medical setting. Jocelyn said her mother, who had cancer but was later in remission, ultimately died of multiple organ failure because of the pharmaceutical drugs she had been taking.
Medical marijuana is healthier and safer than these drugs, she said.
Jocelyn said she's seen patients with marked improvements after suffering from Tourette's syndrome or recurring seizures. "It's just worth it to see people who were barely able to come in, then be able to walk upright," she said.
Working Without Much Regulation
Jocelyn acknowledges one of the side effects of the legal limbo is the lack of regulation in terms of how medical marijuana is produced. However, Kind Alternative's plants are safe and grown organically and then tested for purity, she said.
One of the testers is also a vendor at MMJ Universe, Finley said.
Likewise, Kind Alternative asks its patients to follow a strict set of guidelines and sign forms indicating they understand what they can and cannot do with their medical marijuana products. Those who don't take the care and caution to do so are no longer served, she said.
Finley said she has not been shy about promoting MMJ Universe in relevant circles and to share her new business with her neighbors.
Those who have spoken to her have been supportive, she said, and she assumes those who aren't have not approached her. Either way, Finley wants to stay open about what she's doing as she's meticulously making sure that every detail of MMJ Universe's operations abides by state laws.
This means regulating who gets to be on her property on days the farmer's market is open. Only patients with a Washington state recommendation and ID are able to enter. No one is charged for a given product though donations are suggested to compensate for production costs rather than for the products themselves.
While the vendors transport and maintain all their own respective products during market days, nothing stays on site on off-days, she said. (Editor's Note: Patch was able to tour the facility on such an off-day. Finley said we would not be allowed on the premises on an actual farmer's market day unless we had the proper paperwork.)
Helping People, Helping Community
Jocelyn emphasized that while preconceived notions of a medical marijuana business are understandable, the reality of a collective like Kind Alternative that follows strict operational guidelines is that it doesn't attract criminal elements. (see this story in the Snoqualmie Valley Record)
In fact, Jocelyn said staff formed a Relay for Life group last summer and was able to raise $10,000 for the American Cancer Society. They also continue to donate to the local food bank. (read more in this February 2012 issue of Dope Magazine)
The community of Preston had been supportive of them, she said, and so they wanted to give back when they could.
An Oct. 3 update in the Snoqualmie Valley Record indicated the Kind Alternative may be back in operation in Preston after zoning laws are updated. Meanwhile, they're still making deliveries to patients and serving them from MMJ Universe.
Though running MMJ Universe is more legally involved than say, a doggy day care, Finley said it's worth it. "It's a win-win," she said, "to find something where you can help people. It's so heartwarming to see people come in with braces and canes and walkers and just find relief."
For more information visit mmjuniverse.com.