At city council meetings, they call her "Spokanabis Stratton" or "The Weed Queen," and, with a wink, ask her if she brought the brownies. But all teasing aside, 58-year old Spokane City Council member Karen Stratton says she hasn't gotten a lot of flak, in the political arena or from her constituents, about her decision to grow marijuana.
"I think people were kind of fascinated by it, and interested, because it was so new," she explains on the drive out to the cannabis farm she co-runs with her husband, attorney Chris Wright.
When a client of Wright's suggested the idea of starting a farm, the couple began doing research. Their curiosity turned into a full-fledged investment. Of course, a marijuana farm isn't like a boat or a vacation house. They realized that their decision to grow weed was risky, in light of it still being federally illegal. But they had a son starting college, and Stratton had taken a cut in salary to accept the city council position.
"So we really had to kind of scratch around to see what we could come up with to, um, throw in the pot, so to speak."
Neither Stratton nor her husband smoke, but both have tried vaping, and she occasionally uses a tincture for sleeping. Stratton's brother was a Vietnam veteran who was diagnosed with MS and an alcoholic. "I always wish that we could go back and try to get him on some kind of a medical marijuana regimen that might have given him some quality of life, because he didn't have one," she says.
At her job, Stratton steers clear of any marijuana-related legislation due to possible conflicts of interest. She did have an opponent once post an article on Facebook about marijuana being a gateway drug, mentioning her name and the fact that she grew—which made her mad.
"I think people assume that we're big, big pot smokers, which we're not. I get really testy when people assume they know what our motives were in doing this. Plus, it's legal, after all."
Still, with her Catholic upbringing, the feeling of doing something "wrong" hit her like bong full of bricks the first season when they went to pick up the plants.
"I'll never forget when they opened the door of the warehouse. I'd never seen a marijuana plant! And there were 320-some of them. And the guy who owns the farm still says, 'Karen, I still remember that look on your face.'"
The road we're on stretches past the lone barns and the rolling hills of the pastoral region that rings the city of Spokane (where only 52 percent voted yes on I-502, and even fewer outside of Spokane proper). In the summer, Wright tells me, these fields are awash with the lush green of just-sprouting wheat and barley. Now there's another kind of green growing in them thar hills.
For Stratton and her husband, growing marijuana is a family affair. Her sister helps manage the farm, and during that first stressful harvest—processing four strains: Cinex, Blackberry, Pitbull, and Presidential Kush—they paid other family members to help. Even family members that "probably weren't quite comfortable with the whole marijuana legal issue," Stratton says, including her 90-year-old mother, who once served in both the Washington State House and Senate. "She showed up with her coffee, her Diet Coke, and she trimmed," Stratton says proudly.
The learning curve for running a pot farm is steep, and the couple had their share of early rookie mistakes—like overwatering their crop, for example. A big part of the process is dealing with other people's negative perceptions, and it helps to be part of a community of legal growers, processors, and retailers. "To me, that's been the best benefit of this, that you're able to see people for what they really are, instead of stereotyping," she says.
"I mean, these are professional people who are part of this whole industry that's just beginning," she adds. "They're kind of like pioneers." Not unlike a Spokane City Council member who decided to grow weed on the side.