A David vs. Goliath fight is brewing in Washington State between a startup dispensary and a major corporation that is trying to strong-arm the landlord of the building that houses both businesses.
Joel Martin, co-owner of 221Rx (pictured) in Conway, Washington, said a local Chevron representative is putting pressure on the family that owns the building to boot the dispensary simply because it “might be bad for the company’s image.”
If the dispensary isn’t evicted, the Chevron rep has allegedly threatened to pull the company’s brand from the gas station and force the landlord to pay back roughly $300,000 in improvements and renovations the oil and gas giant made to the property, according to Martin and the family that owns the building. (The family also operates the gas station and has a 12-year contact with Chevron to sell the company’s fuel.)
The lesson for cannabis businesses: Be extra careful when leasing space in a multi-tenant property, as big, national companies with a lot of sway could have an issue with medical marijuana.
“You definitely need to expect the unexpected in this business,” Martin said. “If you’re going into a space near an oil company, grocery store or other large chain, in plazas or in strip malls, I would check with the corporations first (to see if they have any issues with a dispensary). In hindsight, we would have done things differently.”
Martin and his partner thought they had all their bases covered. Before cementing plans to open a dispensary, they met with county officials to discuss the idea and make sure they were in compliance with zoning rules – something other medical cannabis centers that popped up since an MMJ business moratorium expired reportedly didn’t do.
“We’ve done everything by the book,” Martin said. “We went to the country and presented our business model and explained what we would be doing. We negotiated a lease with the landlords for a separate suite in the opposite side of the building from the gas station. So when Chevron comes along and demands our eviction, we feel like we’re being bullied. We’re trying to fight this and let Chevron know that we don’t plan on going anywhere.”
Calls to Chevron’s public relations department and the company’s local representative were not returned.
The Chevron mini mart – where customers also pay for the gas they pump outside – shares the building with 221Rx, though the two businesses have separate entrances and face opposite directions. So customers can’t even see the dispensary while pumping gas or entering the mini mart. The building – a converted barn – also houses a winery, and there’s a small coffee stand just outside. Neither of those businesses have any issues with the dispensary, Martin said.
What’s more, the dispensary doesn’t even have much in the way of signage beyond a small green cross sticker on the door and on a wooden stand just outside the entrance to the dispensary. In fact, there’s no signage bearing the name of the dispensary or specifically promoting medical marijuana at all.
Martin has asked for Chevron’s position in writing but has not received such correspondence to date. So the dispensary is operating in limbo, unsure if Chevron will follow through on its threats.
“We have a right to be here,” Martin said. “This has been pretty frustrating, to have Chevron bully a small business owner. Now the landlord is caught between a rock and a hard place. We really don’t want to have to try to fight Chevron, but we need to stand our ground. In the end, this isn’t about me or about 221, it’s about our patients, local vendors and the people we are partnered with.”
Martin has noticed other Chevron-branded stations near controversial businesses. One down the road, for instance, is located right next to a “bikini barista” stand, where scantily clad women serve coffee. He’s also seen a half-dozen marijuana dispensaries in California that are within a stone’s throw from a medical marijuana center.
221Rx moved into the space about two months ago but delayed opening its doors for several weeks while it sought more clarity on Chevron’s position. The gas station opened several days ago. Chevron recently funded $300,000 in renovations, including new pumps and a canopy refacing (the site previously housed a gas station as well).
At this point, the landlords are aggressively backing Martin and his dispensary.
“I’m very disappointed with Chevron,” said Pierre Youssef, a member of the family that owns the building and operates the gas station. “We’re fighting this right now and pressuring Chevron to give us a letter, which we will then give to our attorney.
The gas station is still complying with a Chevron policy that bans the sale of synthetic drugs, paraphernalia and pornography, Youssef said.
“The thing is that medical marijuana is not being sold out of the gas station,” he said. “They have separate entrances, with Joel’s business facing east and the gas station on the west. And the Chevron several miles away has the bikini barista right beside them with women in bras and thongs. That upsets me. Talk about being bad for your image.”