Any day now, Washington state will issue a producer license granting Zooey Zachow permission to plant the seeds for a crop of sungrown recreational cannabis. Zachow’s business partner (and ex-boyfriend) Michael Buchert envisions a public planting ceremony in May and a harvest ceremony in October. Those flowers will be available for purchase in early 2017 and the profits will be used to develop a retreat center alongside the cannabis garden.
For Zachow, a transgender Iraq veteran, and Buchert, a therapist and professor, the purpose of this project is not merely to grow cannabis, but to promote social justice.
When Zachow returned from Iraq, wounded and struggling with PTSD, she was prescribed a dozen different pharmaceuticals for her injuries and emotional trauma. Some of these pills were addictive, and many produced unpleasant side effects, but none were particularly effective. Various forms of therapy also proved unsuccessful, but at a PTSD support group, she learned that many people found medical cannabis beneficial, so she got a doctor’s recommendation and tried it herself.
“It was amazing,” says Zachow. Cannabis made it possible to process her trauma without becoming overwhelmed by emotion. “There isn’t a cure for PTSD, but I think that cannabis is definitely the most helpful tool to allow people to heal themselves.”
She needed large quantities of cannabis to feel relief, and since she was unemployed and not yet stable enough to seek gainful employment, she began volunteering at a few Seattle dispensaries in exchange for medicine. She found some comfort there, discussing strains with patients and learning to grow, which she found “incredibly therapeutic.”
Unfortunately, the operators of these dispensaries were “shady,” with attitudes and legally dubious business practices held over from the black market. Zachow dreamed of running her own dispensary, and by partnering with a few other growers, she succeeded in opening the Professional Patient Co-op near Seattle’s Gas Works Park in 2011.
The new co-op provided a safe space for Zachow to live independently and explore her gender identity and sexual orientation. While still presenting as a man, Zachow came out to her associates as gay and began dating Michael Buchert soon after.
Buchert is an art therapist and mental health counselor who now teaches graduate courses at Antioch University’s School of Applied Psychology, Counseling and Family Therapy. He is also an artist, musician, and lifelong baker who created sculptural cakes for New York City clients while earning a master’s degree in art therapy at Pratt Institute.
Zachow was unsatisfied with the quality of medicated edibles on the market, and Buchert was inspired to launch Flour & Flower, a line of infused baked goods that Zachow sold at her dispensary. “His salted chocolate chip cookies were legendary,” Zachow recalls.
The Professional Patient Co-op was open for about a year, and business was good. Then Zachow determined that she was a woman, and a lesbian. She and Buchert broke up amicably, but her business partners at the dispensary were “about as awful as they could have been.”
And then Washington state voters passed Initiative 502, which changed everything.
The measure legalized cannabis possession, production and distribution for all adults, and established a regulatory system. Despite initial assurances that the existing medical market would remain intact, Zachow correctly predicted that it would ultimately be folded into the new system.
Zachow and her fellow co-op owners debated the best course of action, with some preferring to remain in retail and others arguing over indoor versus outdoor cultivation. Her partners resolved the question by fraudulently including Zachow’s name on an application submitted without her knowledge, but she discovered their deceit and withdrew the application.
Shaken by the betrayal, Zachow called her ex-boyfriend Buchert with two urgent requests. She had been living at the dispensary, so she needed a place to stay. And she needed his help to apply for her own production license.
Buchert wanted to bake gourmet edibles, and Zachow wanted to cultivate sungrown organic cannabis. Their business plan was deemed “too ethereal” by the ArcView Group – a key cannabis investor organization based in San Francisco – so instead they fundraised within Seattle’s queer community and found early support from another trans woman and several gay men of relatively modest means.
They looked for land in wine country, guided by the principle that conditions conducive to grape growing are also ideal for cannabis, but many of the most desirable appellations are pricey and conservative, with local moratoriums prohibiting cannabis production. They settled on 5 acres in Klickitat County, a poor region better known for wind turbines than wine grapes, at the edge of the Columbia Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Zachow has spent the past two years living in a yurt on the property and Buchert has been driving back and forth from Seattle as they develop the necessary infrastructure for their business. Satisfying state regulations required additional investments, which trickled in slowly.
“We’re okay with the fact that it’s taken us two years,” says Buchert. “We weren’t able to just walk up and throw millions of dollars into an indoor cultivation space, because we didn’t have that money, and that’s actually been a good thing,” he observes. “We believe in slow growth and slow movement, because fast growth and fast movement has not always meant good things for our culture or for our world.”
“We’ve done all the work ourselves,” adds Zachow, who enjoys construction and appreciates this opportunity to exercise skills that are less applicable in modern society. “Farm life has been another really healing thing for me… Being away from the city and having no neighbors and beautiful views has been really nice.”
Along with a small team of friends, Zachow and Buchert have built the foundation for three interwoven businesses: Ritual Cannabis, Ritual Grounds and Ritual Design. Ritual Cannabis consists of a garden and processing facility. Ritual Grounds will be a “center for creative potential,” intended to host a variety of retreats and events. Ritual Design refers to a planned series of online videos and other educational resources, as well as branding and marketing services for other cannabis farmers.
“Ritual Grounds will be the driving force behind a lot of our social justice projects,” Zachow says. Eventually, the team hopes to provide a peaceful place for activists and artists from Seattle and Portland to learn, heal and connect with one another. There will be yoga, art, meditation, music and workshops devoted to ecology and advocacy.
Zachow and Buchert both emphasize a shared aspiration to make a positive impact in the lives of marginalized people, including trans folk, people of color and those coping with mental illness. In Buchert’s words, “Certainly it’s a business and we want to make money, but all along in our lives we felt that decisions had been made for the communities that we have been serving that were about money and we wanted to do something about that.”