Seven years ago, Chris Marr was finishing his first term as a state senator from Spokane, serving as Majority Whip and Vice Chair of the Transportation Subcommittee.
Today he is a lobbyist and marijuana industry consultant living in Olympia.
“I normally call what I do ‘strategic and regulatory consulting,’” he said. “I really didn’t get into lobbying specifically for marijuana – it has only been in the last year-and-a-half that people have been contacting me.”
In 2010, all he was hoping for was another Senate term. But that fall, Michael Baumgartner received more votes.
At that point, Marr switched gears and began work for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, helping to create the recreational marijuana industry. After four years, he became a lobbyist for Group Health.
“In 2015 I left the Liquor Board — essentially the work was done to open the stores,” he said.
This lobbying gig led to requests for advocacy for other industries, including health care, transportation and eventually cannabis.
Marr said his non-cannabis clients don’t have a problem with his work in the marijuana industry, especially since much of it is behind the scenes and advisory.
“I do nuts-and-bolts work,” he said. “I will coordinate to tweak pieces of legislation.”
He enjoys helping clients navigate legislation they may not fully understand or agree with. For instance, he worked to improve elements of Senate Bill 5131 that governed processors being able to sell to other processors. That law passed.
“Processors wanted the ability to make a batch of 100 cookies and sell them to you as a processor and you can re-batch and sell under your label,” Marr said.
He says he currently has about a dozen cannabis clients, including retailers, growers and edible makers.
The cannabis industry is growing in leaps and bounds, and is starting to be taken seriously.
“Chambers (of commerce) initially really wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “Recently the Association of Washington Businesses wanted to pick my brain about how to engage the industry.”
Marr says it’s an industry that wants to be engaged, and it has also changed since legalization.
“You see a lot of guys with grey beards with ponytails,” Marr said. “They know where the industry has been. But the people who know where it’s going are millennials and 30-somethings.”
Marijuana business owners aren’t stereotypical stoners either, according to Marr. Many have business backgrounds, and most are serious about following the rules.
“We hear more ‘how do you comply with it?’ rather than how to get around it,” said Marr.
Although some Washington entrepreneurs fear an imminent federal crackdown, Marr isn’t as concerned.
“Certainly it’s something to monitor — I think the risk is fairly minimal, but I think the bigger risk is for states ramping up to legalization,” he said.
The uncertainty may remain for a few more years.
“Marijuana is only three years past Prohibition so it will still take time to shake things out,” Marr predicted. “In the long run the market will follow its natural course, and large outdoor grows will be the rule rather than the exception.”
Eastern Washington can benefit, including drier climates with long growing seasons and seasonal workers, especially areas like the Tri-Cities.
Larger businesses may eventually edge smaller ones out because prices are dropping significantly.
“It’s a constantly transforming industry,” he said. “The marijuana industry is much more than you see when you walk into a retailer.”