Jon Sahlberg’s mind was on his van full of weed when the Washington State Patrol pulled him over for a busted taillight near Ritzville.
“I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t know how this is going to go,’ ” the former FedEx delivery man-turned-marijuana transporter said.
The back of his late-model Dodge van held several pounds of pot, its presence unavoidable thanks to the drug’s signature skunky scent. Sahlberg hoped the manifest from a state-licensed cannabis farm, and his credentials as one of the state’s first marijuana transporters, would absolve him.
Moving marijuana is the newest wrinkle in Washington’s billion-dollar pot industry. Only nine licenses to legally transport marijuana have been issued statewide; two of those are in Spokane, including the first transport licensee in the state, Go Green Enterprises, and Sahlberg’s firm, Cannavan. Those involved in the trade said the state imposes strict guidelines and there is still some uncertainty over how the service will work in an industry that recently celebrated its third anniversary of operation.
Sahlberg handed the trooper his paperwork and was sent on his way. Most of the rest of his time behind the wheel, which includes up to four trips weekly across the state on Interstate 90, has been dull, with podcasts as his soundtrack, Sahlberg said.
“Most of the deliveries are from Spokane to Seattle, and Seattle to Spokane, because no one wants to make that drive,” Sahlberg said.
His rigs are inconspicuous white vans, outfitted with a cage separating the cabin from the product in back. Sahlberg installed thermal insulation to keep temperatures from rising above 75 degrees, the silver panels giving his vans the appearance of a NASA lunar lander. High temperatures could melt edibles containing chocolate or waxes, he said.
The scent that tipped off the trooper? Doesn’t bother him, Sahlberg said.
“It smells, but you get used to the smell,” he said.
You’ll find locks but not a gun in Cannavan vehicles. Sahlberg said it causes too many complications. His insurance, which costs $10,000 for each van per year and was difficult to find, covers the loss of product, and video cameras are trained on the drug throughout the transport.
Kevin Lynch, an information technology specialist who started Go Green Enterprises in November, also doesn’t arm his five drivers making deliveries all over the state.
“Our understanding is if you carry while you’re transporting, it’s against the law and you can be arrested for it,” Lynch said.
Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Liquor and Cannabis Board, pointed to the Department of Justice’s guidance on prosecution of marijuana crimes, a 2013 memorandum prepared by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole. The document, which guides much of Washington’s legal industry as President Donald Trump’s administration develops its own enforcement policies, indicates the department will prosecute to prevent “the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.”
State law also prohibits the transport of marijuana from a retailer to individual customers, Smith said. For now, Sahlberg and Lynch may only ferry the drug from one state-licensed business to another or to a laboratory for testing. Transporting marijuana over state lines is grounds for an immediate cancellation of a business license.
Lynch said the problems for his business are more mundane than highway robberies and run-ins with law enforcement. Traffic. Paperwork. Early mornings. When he first started and drove the trucks himself, Lynch would knock off his day job as an IT professional and drive to and from Seattle, returning to Spokane for a few hours of sleep before starting all over again.
“The worst part of our job is the amount of windshield time,” he said. Sahlberg said he was driving 1,000 miles a day at one point.
The clock is also ticking: If deliveries aren’t completed within 48 hours of pickup, transporters risk fines and further costs to start the shipment process all over again.
“I didn’t think it was going to be easy, but there are times when I sit and scratch my head and say, I didn’t think necessarily it was going to be this hard,” Lynch said.
Sahlberg said he’d already petitioned the state to extend the 48-hour window. He envisions a future where he could take one big shipment over Snoqualmie Pass and distribute to smaller rigs making local deliveries. Current laws prevent seamlessly establishing a base of operations on the West Side, as Lynch found out when he tried to move out of a basement office in his current location near downtown Spokane.
“I had to refile my entire license, and go through all the steps again,” Lynch said. Sahlberg estimated it took him about eight months to get everything in order with the Liquor and Cannabis Board to start driving, including a criminal background check that prompted questioning of Sahlberg’s choice to steal beer when he was 15.
On Monday, Sahlberg hauled a routine 5-pound shipment between two of his childhood buddies. Nick Burger, a former sheet metal worker, owns Firehouse Productions in Hillyard, a midlevel indoor grower that sells a handful of strains to shops throughout the state. Steve Burks operates retailer Treehouse Club, which has led the county in marijuana sales for the past several months. The trio have known each other since elementary school.
Sahlberg made the trip solo, as state laws prevent anyone who’s not an employee from being in the vehicle. The whole process took a little less than an hour, including time to answer questions and complete all the paperwork the state needs for a shipment. Both Sahlberg and his customers are required by law to keep hard copies of paperwork logging the deliveries for three years.
Burger said Sahlberg’s service allows him to keep his employees focused on production.
“Insurance is better, security is better with Jon’s vans. It’s cheaper and puts us more at ease,” Burger said.
For the shops, it’s the assurance that a product from the other side of the state will be in stock.
“Last winter, we had a lot of deliveries, but we had a lot of farms that were like, ‘We don’t have anyone that can drive because the weather’s too bad,’ ” Burks said.
Sahlberg said he’s starting to make a profit, despite all the overhead costs, and hopes to have a fleet of 10 vans by the end of the year. His parents, who aren’t fans of the industry, have come around to appreciate his new business despite the stigma that continues to linger three years later.
“The idea of it sounds a lot riskier, but it’s just a delivery service,” Sahlberg said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.