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Doug Clark: Spokane’s Cip Paulsen has gone from busted cocaine kingpin to legalized marijuana magnate

I have this cherished memory of taking a grade-school field trip through a downtown commercial bakery eons ago.

The wonderful yeasty aroma of fresh-baked bread permeated the place. And after the tour, my classmates and I all headed gleefully back to school, clutching small loaves of complimentary gluten like treasures.

That image came to mind the other day when I took a field trip through the old Costco warehouse to see Cip (pronounced Kip) Paulsen’s pot farm.

For the record, I did not exit this Third Avenue landmark with any freebie seeds or even a stray stem.

My snazzy wool sports coat, however, absorbed an odious amount of the skunkweed stench, which made me reek like a Rastafarian in the midst of a cleansing rite.

“Whoa,” said my daughter, Emily, when I paid her a visit later.

“Whoa,” said my lovely wife, Sherry, who made me hang my ganja jacket in the garage overnight, no doubt giving contact highs to any intruding mice.

“Isn’t that something the way that (bleep) stinks?” said Paulsen, who exploded with laughter when I told him this story.

“Try walking in a grocery store with it. You get all these sideways looks.”

Paulsen is a gravel-voiced character who delivers quick, comic bursts of insight.

He also hails from one of Spokane’s most famous families: Yes, those same Paulsens of Paulsen Building fame.

History lesson time.

August Paulsen, the clan’s patriarch, was a dairy farmer back in the late 1800s when he offered 850 bucks for a 25 percent stake in a North Idaho hole in the ground that was considered by so-called experts to be a dud.

Legend has it that August had only 100 actual dollars to pony up. So he vowed to work off the rest of his debt in sweat labor. Which he did until one lucky day in 1901, when he hit a monster vein of rich lead-and-silver ore.

The hole became widely known as the Mighty Hercules mine. And when he died in 1927, Paulsen’s estate was worth more than $53 million in today’s money.

End of lesson.

That same entrepreneurial Paulsen drive made Cip pretty darned famous, too, although not in a way endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce.

Paulsen spent seven months shy of a decade in an assortment of federal prisons after being busted in 1994 for cocaine capitalism.

“I was Spokane’s favorite bad boy,” he mused.

Operation Doughboy. That’s what the feds called their well-publicized investigation, which led to 30-some area arrests.

Pleading guilty, Paulsen admitted his role in conspiring to distribute between 15 and 50 kilograms of Colombian Marching Powder.

Coke in the 1980s, he told me, was “just the lifestyle that we lived. It was almost a normal lifestyle.”

Choosing not to point the finger at anyone, Paulsen received his hefty sentence and served nine years and three months in a string of cramped communal cells.

Paulsen admitted that he was initially angry “at those who told on me,” adding that he gradually “learned to be a lot more grateful for life and not entitled.”

That’s the Cip Paulsen of today.

So how does a “cocaine kingpin,” as one story pegged him, go on to becoming a “King of Green”?

By keeping his nose clean, that’s how. Paulsen, who left prison in 2003, has walked the straight path long enough to be granted a license to grow legalized recreational marijuana under the blessings of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

The warehouse site was a win-win for a grow since it’s not only mammoth, but Paulsen-family-owned.

Someone had told me months ago that the old Costco had turned Potco, but I put it out of mind. Hell, back in the day I bought my snow tires there.

Then one recent afternoon, while driving past, the air on Third suddenly smelled like an after-party for the cast of “Reefer Madness.”

What the …?

The mental tumblers clicked into place. I called Paulsen, who graciously welcomed my request for a tour.

I’m not the only one to notice the odor of dorm room potfume.

But Paulsen said he’s received only a couple of formal complaints. Compare that to the vast numbers of cars going by, he said, and “we must be doing something right.”

Entering the Grow State warehouse requires going through some mean-looking steel security doors, signing in with name, date and time, and donning a flimsy visitor’s badge.

Before going much farther, Paulsen switched on his computer and treated me to a five-minute trailer for a potential reality TV show.

Remember the above line, “King of Green”?

Not mine. It’s the working title for a docu-style project that is all about Paulsen.

A film crew recently finished capturing his over-the-top humor and bombast.

There’s Cip lifting his shirt to reveal his scar from heart surgery. There’s Cip motoring with friends on his 42-foot boat, the aptly named “Who Cares?” There’s Cip, waving his arms atop the downtown edifice that bears his family name.

“I worry about Cip on a day-to-day basis,” observed one employee in a wry tone.

“Sometimes I think I’m 30 instead of 57,” declared Paulsen.

The trailer is polished, compelling and genuinely funny. Paulsen is a perfect centerpiece for this sort of exposure and I’d definitely watch it.

The producers, he said, plan to shop the show to Netflix and other networks. So wait and see.

In the meantime, Paulsen said his operation is earning “$330,000 gross sales a month and it’s growing considerably and will continue to go up.”

While this may sound like a bud bonanza, consider this: Starting the enterprise took an investment of $4 million to $5 million.

Then there’s the learning curve. Paulsen said he lost money for a time due to hiring people who claimed to know what they were doing, but didn’t deliver.

Pot farming. One day it’s a harvest. Next day you’re up to your bib overalls in buzz-killing locusts.

For the record, I’ve never been a smoker or a midnight toker. That said, weed has been legal in Washington since 2012 and I could give a hoot about any adult who decides to imbibe.

Smoke your dirty sweat socks for all I care.

The business, however, is a fascinating thing to see up close.

A most affable tour guide, Paulsen led me through his concrete maze.

The old Costco safe room. Veg rooms. Bloom rooms. A room with swirling tanks of liquid green nutrients. Another room filled with used and unused light fixtures.

I saw it all, from seedlings to plants sprouting buds big enough for a Barry Bonds batting practice.

Paulsen said business took a major upswing when he hired Chris Leeper, 32, as his Grow Team manager.

“He’s literally fantastic,” Paulsen declared of the second-generation pot grower from Northern California.

“I pay him well and he has an eye for it. He knows what he’s doing. He’s one of the very, very, very few.”

Leeper’s expertise extends to all facets of the process and beyond: from plant propagation to seedlings to knowing the precise moment when the buds are at their THC-richest for plucking.

In one room, I found a forest of green marijuana plants listening to a Rolling Stones hit blasting out of a boombox.

“They like the old rock and roll,” said Leeper, grinning.

Not everything in the cannabis trade is scientific, apparently.

Much of Paulsen’s product is ultimately reduced to oil concentrates that I saw drying on racks like sheets of peanut brittle.

Once dried, the material is then reduced to amber granules that reminded me of raw sugar. The crystals are placed in small packets that retail for $25 to $30.

Paulsen delivers some product locally, but mostly he ships to pot shops on the West Side.

“This is the money room, baby!” hollered Paulsen as I examined one of the packets he brands as “Altered States.”

Field trip finished, I said so long to the old Costco warehouse and gave a friendly wave to Spokane’s King of Green. Then I slid back into my car and all but passed out from the stink.

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