Alaska’s got a lot going for it. Beautiful wilderness. Great people. Cool animals. And now, the country’s northern-most cannabis industry.
Like a lot of goods and services in the Last Frontier, the options are not always abundant. Residents tend to have a resilient brand of gratitude for what’s here, and quality is often a secondary concern. That said, a small, spunky constellation of growers, manufacturers and retailers have managed to open businesses, with a wide variety of products available over the counter.
Alaska has unique challenges when it comes to its pot industry: High costs, small population, and logistical barriers to business, particularly in smaller rural communities. Access to commercial cannabis is unevenly spread around the state. If you’re visiting Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, retail shops are easy to find. But plenty of towns, many of them popular tourist destinations, have no such offerings. And even if you can purchase products, there are scant venues for legally consuming it.
A good rule of thumb in Alaska is to think of the laws for pot as being no different from alcohol (in fact, the ballot initiative that ushered in legal cannabis called for exactly this). That means you have to be over 21 and have valid ID to purchase it, you have to buy it from a legal seller, and you’re not allowed to partake on the street.
The biggest difference is that while liquor has bars, cannabis in Alaska has no equivalent. Which has become something of an issue for the tourism industry: visitors are well within their legal rights to walk into a store and buy a gram of Pineapple Skunk (hybrid, 8.06 percent THC, $20) or bag of Butcherscotch Brownies from Momo’s Bakery (edible, 5mg THC, $32). But they aren’t technically allowed to smoke them in hotel rooms, bring them onto cruise ships, or pack them in luggage aboard commercial airlines. Visitors are allowed to transport up to an ounce, so if you’re heading to a small town by car, you should be fine. Busses may have their own policies, however, and if you’re taking a small plane, you’re probably best to leave it out of your bags – even though planes with fewer than 25 passengers don’t require TSA screenings, the pilot could still face sanctions if you’re caught.
How We Got Here
Alaska has had a more open and permissible relationship with cannabis than most places in America, going back to a 1975 court case, Ravin v. State. Judges ruled that under the Alaska Constitution’s right to privacy residents could possess up to four ounces of cannabis in their homes. This was solely for personal use, though. It was illegal to buy and sell pot, or to have more than an ounce with you outside the home.
There were different efforts recriminalizing pot in Alaska, including a successful citizens initiative and bills in the state legislature. All of these were eventually struck down in court, although in the process the rules around possession and transport tightened. Amid the confusing legal back-and-forth, in 1998 voters legalized medical marijuana. But the supply came from personal or in-home cultivation, not dispensaries. There were still no legal pot businesses, and as late as 2014 just 1,743 medicinal marijuana cardholders registered with the state.
In November of 2014, Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2, which legalized recreational cannabis and called for it to be regulated by the state like alcohol. Since there had never been licensed medical dispensaries, this meant an entirely new industry had to be built from the ground up through regulations. The process of starting businesses has been long, involved, and expensive, with some local governments taking steps to make it even more onerous, or banning local permitting all together. It was almost two years from voter approval until the first pot shop opened in the small town of Valdez, population 3,977.
Alaska Goes Legal
Alaska is a big state with a little population, about 740,000, roughly half of whom live in Anchorage. That’s about a quarter of the Denver metro area – which is why some people refer to Alaska’s cannabis industry as a marijuana “micro-market.” And it’s an open question how many businesses the micro-market can sustain.
“Right now it’s still in its initial budding phases,” said Jana Weltzin, an attorney who runs JDW Counsel, a law firm that works with cannabis businesses in Alaska and Arizona.
Cultivation facilities and growers came first, generating product for the first handful of retail shops that sprang forth like hearty, well capitalized tundra mushrooms. According to Weltzin, the industry is out of its infancy, but far from mature. “It’s almost like a pre-teen phase,” she says.
Weltzin has walked clients through the licensing process in different parts of the state, where obstacles and regulations can vary widely. Alaskans themselves delineate the state by “on the road system” or “off the road system,” the former being towns festooned across a long highway system like beads on a necklace. It connects to several ports that are free of ice year round, meaning goods can be delivered and making everything from fuel to groceries significantly cheaper. Via the Alaska-Canadian Highway, you can drive to towns like Fairbanks, Anchorage and all the way down to Homer, where the road ends. Most Alaskans live on the road system.
“Off the road system” is all the places in Alaska you cannot drive to, and there are many. This includes the forested archipelago of islands in southeast Alaska, as well as the rugged, mostly indigenous communities scattered across coastlines and rivers in the western and northern parts of the state. When you look at a map of the road, you see that almost all of Alaska’s land mass is off the road system – for example, you can’t drive to Juneau, the capital.
Almost all of the pot businesses in the state are along the road system, with the densest concentration of retailers in Anchorage. There are a few operations in southeast Alaska, a region where summer cruise ship tourism is particularly popular. While some individuals have applied for business permits in western Alaska, none have opened yet – although Weltzin says one of her clients is a few months from opening a shop in Nome, the rough-and-tumble Bering Sea town where the Iditarod Sled Dog Race ends.
One of the obstacles for cannabis businesses off the road system in Alaska is that there is no way to run an operation compliant with state laws that doesn’t break some federal laws. Growers in Alaska have to get their products tested in licensed laboratories. Right now, the only two labs that can do that are along the road system. That means legally licensed cultivators on an island like Sitka or hundreds of air-miles away in Nome have to send testing samples through the mail, on a commercial flight, or by a seafaring vessel of one kind or another – all of which bumps into a federal agency tasked with upholding federal laws, including drug laws, which pertains to cannabis.
For cultivators off the road system trying to get their product to market in cities like Anchorage, the proposition is even more perilous and convoluted. A 2017 article in the Anchorage Daily News profiled a business owner in Sitka who regularly brought pounds of bud aboard commercial flights in her carry-on luggage. The system involved alerting TSA and local police in advance, but in a Kafkaesque navigation of federal rules, not telling the airline because under FAA rules they can’t knowingly transport cannabis. So, the woman would sit there perspiring as several illicit pounds of her livelihood thumped around in the overhead bin. The system relies on many different regulatory and enforcement agencies deciding not to make more work for themselves policing pot when it complies with state laws.
If you’re in Anchorage, it’s not hard to find weed. Unless you are downtown, you’ll almost certainly have to drive to a retail shop, though that’s as true with cannabis as it is with Thai food or toothpaste. Outside of Anchorage, the offerings can be a lot slimmer. Weedmaps can help you quickly establish if a town has a retail store. In smaller communities you can literally ask people on the street and they’ll be able to tell you if a local shop exists because there typically aren’t that many businesses.
For much of 2017, Alaska had a problem with supply. Stores couldn’t keep product on the shelves, would quickly sell out, and were paying through the nose on contracts for crops that had yet to be grown. But as more businesses have moved through the protracted and expensive permitting process, there is now the beginnings of a glut.
“Retailers have the advantage in the Alaska market right now,” says Leah Levinton, who along with a few family members runs Enlighten Alaska, a dispensary in Anchorage. “Flower prices are dropping dramatically, there are hundreds of cultivators waiting in line to be approved and they’re coming on board quickly now. There will be a lot more competition this year.”
Alaska still hasn’t figured out on-site consumption. Though allowances for businesses to let customers smoke or eat products inside have been discussed, regulators have not yet decided one way or another on a proposal. Clubs have sprung up that allowed paying members to consume inside, but the legality was always questioned and they have steadily been shut down. The state also has an explicit ban on consuming in public. While it’s not uncommon during late night hours to catch an odiferous whiff of pot outside a bar or around a bonfire, it would generally turn heads if a person brazenly lit up on a sidewalk or along a popular park trail. Alaskans are tolerant and accepting, but it’s place where discretion and common sense are highly esteemed.
One place where some people try to get away with consumption is the Cannabis Classic, now in its fourth year. This year it starts on May 18th, and features awards for growers, a bake off, events like cannabis + yoga – “a 60-minute medicated yoga session” – and an award show.
Keeping the Lights On
Pretty much everything is more expensive in Alaska. And while the price-point for bud is not that radically out of step with what one might encounter at shops in other legalized states, the physical environment in here makes the industry a little more costly for all involved.
Energy is a serious challenge in Alaska. Most of the state is cold and dark for a lot of the year, and just being a human being inside a domicile requires a fair amount of heat and light, most of which is generated from fossil fuels on inefficient small grids. The grow lights required for cultivation are certainly not carbon neutral.
“In most cases, the cannabis industry makes a pretty large environmental impact, unfortunately,” Levinton says. “Especially in Alaska, because we have to grow indoors about nine months out of the year, which uses an extraordinary amount of energy up here. As the industry and businesses mature, more sustainable processes will be developed and become common practice, I believe.”
For its part, Levinton’s business started an in-store recycling program to handle all the plastic and packaging generated in sales.
However, Alaska is also the land of the Midnight Sun – for months in the high Arctic the sun never sets, just circles around overhead like a relentless, glowing balloon. One operation, Rosie Creek Farm, does seasonal outdoor cultivation beneath the near-constant shine of Alaska’s interior region during the brief summer months.
Weltzin, the lawyer, says that while many of her clients know sustainability is the wave of the future, it is still several years away. Which is generally how trends and technology migrate northward to Alaska.