5 updates on stories readers were most curious about in 2021

From the NFT craze to the Jan. 6 insurrection, we follow up on some of the stories our newsroom has covered.

Two people wearing face masks stand over a blanket on a table

Studio assistant Jasmine Frazier, left, works on tying off loose ends on blankets with studio manager Josh Swift at the Eighth Generation warehouse in Seattle on Jan. 14, 2021. The art and apparel brand partners with Native artists around the country. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

It can be difficult to keep track of all that happened in the whirlwind of 2021. Crosscut reporters covered a range of topics, from a zebra mussels outbreak to the NFT craze. Do you ever wonder what happened afterward with some of the big stories? We took a trip down memory lane and looked at our top performing articles of 2021 and chose five to update you on.

1. Legalizing growing pot at home

In the U.S., 10 of 15 states with legalized recreational marijuana use allow people to grow weed at home — Washington state isn’t among them. But during the 2021 legislative session, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers proposed House Bill 1019, which would allow those over 21 to grow up to six cannabis plants for recreational use, with a maximum of 15 plants per household. Under Washington state law today, people who qualify for a medical marijuana card can grow a small amount of cannabis at home, but for everyone else, it’s a felony.  

The update: House Bill 1019 was stalled in the House Appropriations Committee in the spring, and is expected to be revisited when the 2022 Legislature starts on Jan. 10. In the past, some state officials raised concerns about whether the bill could decrease state revenue from cannabis sales. However, analysis shows little economic impact on the regulated marijuana market and will instead hurt illegal sales, says state Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, the bill's sponsor.

The bill is aimed at people who want to use cannabis for medical reasons, but do not qualify under the Washington medical marijuana law to grow at home. It would also allow people interested in the business to grow their own, similar to people who brew their own beer and wine. If the bill is passed in 2022, it would allow individuals to have more control over growing conditions and what goes into the products, but the limitations of the bill would not allow them to grow enough to sell for profit. 

“It no longer makes sense to prohibit someone from growing a product that they can go to a store to purchase,” Kloba said.

Seattle 3D sculptor Sam Clover, aka Planttdaddii creates virtual sculptures featuring trippy fauna and flora through tedious work with 3D software. This piece, called "Feathered Friend," sold as an NFT on SuperRare for 1.7Ξ ($2,505). (Sam Clover/Planttdaddii)

2. NFTs

In 2021, the world of crypto-art skyrocketed. Digital artists were able to create GIFs, MP4s and JPEGs, and sell them online as nonfungible tokens, or NFTs. While anyone can view and even download the artwork, buying an NFT gives you proof of ownership over the piece. Buyers typically use cryptocurrency like Ethereum to make purchases. Although NFTs aren’t new, their rise in popularity made headlines in March, when a digital collage sold for $69 million at auction as an NFT, according to an article by the New York Times. 

The update: In her dive into Seattle’s NFT scene, Crosscut reporter Margo Vansynghel reported on how local artists, collectors and curators were jumping into the NFT craze. One Seattle artist Vansynghel interviewed, digital sculptor Sam Clover, aka Planttdaddii, entered the NFT world in late 2020 and, at the time of the interview, sold her pieces for about $3,000 on platforms like SuperRare and Foundation.  

Since March, Clover has moved from Seattle to Brooklyn, New York, to be part of the larger NFT community. Over the past nine months, her success has continued to soar, with her last two NFTs selling on Foundation for roughly $12,000 and $14,000 respectively, doubling her income since spring. Clover says digital sculptors are in high demand for projects, including trendy profile picture projects, which people purchase to use on their social media. When Clover began selling NFTs, she sold about two pieces a month; now she's producing a piece every three months. 

“There is a decently high chance [that if I put something out], it will sell so I have been trying to focus on living a little healthier, being less of a workaholic and putting out work that matters to me and has a little more concept behind it,” Clover says.

But the new artform didn’t arrive without raising some concerns, including the medium’s carbon footprint. Vansynghel reported that one Ethereum transaction equates to the amount of energy to power an average U.S. household for 2.18 days. 

In March, Clover will be working with a new “carbon neutral” platform called Voice, which will allow people concerned about their environmental footprint to buy NFTs in U.S. dollars, rather than cryptocurrency. For Clover, NFTs are more than a way to monetize her art.

“The community is incredible and has given me a lot of confidence in my work,” she says.

3. Native blankets, made in Seattle

Eighth Generation is a Seattle-based, Native-owned art and lifestyle brand that partners exclusively with Indigenous artists. Its tag line: “Inspired Natives, not Native-inspired.” In 2019, founder Louie Gong (Nooksack) sold the company to the Snoqualmie Tribe but continued to act as CEO. In January, Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel visited Eighth Generation’s warehouse to learn more about the company's latest move: manufacturing wool blankets in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, rather than at other factories in the U.S. and China. At the time, Gong told Vansynghel the company had sold about 500 baby blankets and scarves made in Seattle since late 2020.

The update: In 2022, Eighth Generation’s CEO Louie Gong will be stepping down for a much-needed break. When he sold his company to the Snoqualmie Tribe in 2019, he said he did so because he knew the company needed “some muscle behind the hustle” in order to become the global brand he envisioned. He will remain an artist with Eighth Generation under the Inspired Natives Project, and he’s proud that, as CEO and founder, “the business arrangements that are good for the artist are also good enough for me.” In an announcement video he shared on Instagram, he reflected on the many firsts of the company.

“We were the first to offer wool blankets, we found a way to open up a store at Pike Place Market,” he said. “I know that this journey and the direct work of Eighth Generation is responsible for diverting tens of millions of dollars away from non-Native corporations that sell fake Native art and diverting it to Native artists and Native-owned businesses like Eighth Generation that are popping up everywhere.” 

In October, Eighth Generation moved to a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Georgetown, which is 17,000 square feet larger than the SoDo warehouse. The warehouse has allowed the company to scale up and triple in-house textile production. Since the sale of the business in 2019, revenue has doubled, according to company representatives.

“I bootstrapped my way up from a Native artist making one-off pieces by drawing on shoes to being the fastest-growing Native business in [the] U.S. or Canada, and in 2021 here in our new headquarters we finally look the part,” Gong said. 

In 2022, Gong says, Eighth Generation plans to double its production again by adding a second shift so that machines can run day and night.

4. Marimo moss balls and Zebra mussels

Zebra mussels and their quagga mussel cousins have made it into every U.S. watershed in the Lower 48 states except the Columbia River Basin. In March, reporter Hannah Weinberger reported on the state’s emergency efforts to keep it that way. Through the state’s monitoring and outreach program, officials detected the invasive mussels on Marimo moss balls, a common aquarium plant found at pet stores. The mussels are known to quickly outcompete native species and damage infrastructure.  

In an effort to eradicate the zebra mussels, state officials asked aquarium owners to decontaminate their tanks and dispose of their moss balls.  Suddenly, aquarium owners became the front line of defense for the state’s watersheds against the invasive species. 

Meanwhile, a nationwide recall pulled certain brands of moss balls from pet store shelves. Months later, we are left wondering: Whatever happened to those zebra mussels? 

The update: Nine months later, Washington state still considers zebra mussels to be the top aquatic invasive threat to the Columbia River Basin and Pacific Northwest. But the agency hasn’t identified any zebra mussels in moss balls since mid-March, and the threat level has decreased.

Pet stores, including Petco and PetSmart, have resumed selling Marimo moss balls, which, as of September, must meet new federal safeguards. Moss balls, including implicated brands like “Beta Buddies,” can be legally imported into the U.S. only through John F. Kennedy  and Los Angeles international airports, where they are inspected by officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Washington State Department of Agriculture is considering establishing a quarantine process and import regulations for moss balls, according to Becky Bennett, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's community outreach liaison.  

In addition to larger pet stores, 10 independent pet stores across Washington also worked with the state to eliminate zebra mussel-infested moss balls. All were very cooperative, Bennett says, and either voluntarily turned over moss balls suspected to carry zebra mussels to Fish and Wildlife, or fully documented the authorized destruction and disposal of their moss balls. 

A federal investigation figured out the source of the mussels. In March, Fish and Wildlife employees learned that the moss balls, which are typically farm-raised domestically, could be traced back to three U.S. distributors, according to an investigation led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An investigation implicated one new international supplier, which had been wild-harvesting them from Eastern Europe within the native home range of zebra and quagga mussels.

The detection stress-tested the state’s ability to rapidly respond to threats of invasion. Fish and Wildlife’s monitoring program already checked thousands of samples from hundreds of waterways each year to watch for zebra mussels before the moss ball incident, and Bennett says it made the agency feel more confident in the framework set up for responding, known as an incident command system. Training to use that system for rapid response, however, is something the department will emphasize more in the future. 

“We did have a level of experience entering this incident. However, we have identified the need to increase the participation, frequency, realism and intensity of these trainings to effectively respond to such incidents,” Bennett says.

5. Jan. 6 Insurrection

On Jan. 6, six Seattle Police Department employees were in Washington, D.C., and attended the “Stop the Steal” rally. Images surfaced of two of the officers who attended and were put on paid leave by interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz. When Diaz asked other officers who attended to step forward, four more did but they were not put on leave. 

Since the incident, the Seattle Police Officers Guild has attempted to block the disclosure of officer names, and has argued the Office of Police Accountability’s investigation and request for private documents is unlawful and discriminatory. In March, a King County judge denied a request to block the city of Seattle from identifying the officers who attended the rally that occurred before the U.S. Capitol insurrection. The names have yet to be released. 

Crosscut’s David Kroman reported in July that the OPA’s investigation recommended that two of the six Seattle Police officers who were in D.C. should be fired for their participation in the events of Jan. 6. Of the four other officers who attended the rally, the investigation found that three did not engage in any wrongdoing, and the last officer's involvement was inconclusive. 

In August, Diaz announced he was firing two officers who “were found to have crossed the outdoor barriers established by the Capitol Police and were directly next to the Capitol Building.”

The update: During a Washington state Supreme Court  hearing of the officers’ case, the justices were asked to decide if the higher court needed to hear the case, or if it could go back to the trial court. 

Seattle Times reporter Lewis Kamb wrote that the attorneys representing the four officers who were cleared of wrongdoing were OK with the case going back to the lower court, “but they argued the court should instruct the trial court to reconsider privacy issues it ruled didn’t apply when denying a preliminary injection in March.”

On Nov. 17, the Washington Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court. The justices also allowed the officers to continue using “Jane and John Does” in their legal proceedings instead of their legal names.

Reporter Hannah Weinberger contributed to this story.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Amina Ibrahim

Amina Ibrahim

Amina Ibrahim was the the 2021 Audience Engagement Fellow at Crosscut.