Weed Up From The Feet Up
Weed Up From The Feet Up: Legalizing Cannabis In The Last Frontier
Words / Whitney Branshaw
Photos / Chevelle Abel, Joel Adams
I was well overdue for a phone call with my grandmother. She's 83 years old, still sharp as a tack, still lives in Westport, WA in the same house I grew up making memories in. She's a serious straight shooter, no bullshit with gram, and I crave her seasoned advice. I dialed the 360 number and she picked up on the second ring (per usual) delighted in hearing my voice and demanded an update in all areas – I've had lots of extra free time that I’ve filled with travel, writing, spontaneous decisions and little sleep while still coming up in career girl status. I filled her in on the specifics and must know and then she inquired about my creative endeavors.
Now, I had a choice in how I answered that inquiry. I had been busy wrapping up interviews and gathering information to write about recreational cannabis being legalized and regulated in our great state of Alaska (God Bless America). It’s not that I didn't think grandma wasn't going to be down with it, I was just concerned she may withhold the approval I value when it comes to my literary endeavors. I decided to keep it simple and just tell her the facts as I usually did.
"Well Gram, I'm just wrapping up a piece on legalizing Marijuana in Alaska."
I held my breath and waited for it. Her response surprised me.
"Well honey, that sounds dandy. In fact, I've thought about getting a plant of my own and trying some. Maybe it would help my glaucoma."
I went from pure joy in knowing her genuine interest in the subject and circling the island in the kitchen at a furious pace, unable to not contain my excitement, to bristling at the fact that my own grandmother, who lived in a state that had regulated recreational Cannabis and had legal medicinal cannabis, didn't have safe and easy access to something that could benefit her quality of life. Even if she wasn't seeking medicinal grade cannabis, she still has the right to access recreational cannabis in a safe manner for whatever reason she wants to. Plain and simple. In case ya'll are wondering, she has since sent me newspaper cutouts of new dispensaries opening in her area that she thinks might be accessible to her.
This exact perspective was shared among every person I interviewed during the process of digging deep into the scene surrounding what is happening in our state – a genuine desire to have safe and reasonable access to cannabis after the regulations role out in November when completed by the Marijuana Control Board.
Just so everyone is up to date, let’s have a brief history lesson here kids.
The state of Alaska has tangoed with loose Marijuana laws for the better part of four decades. In 1975, Alaska became the first state to decriminalize in home personal use of Cannabis through the Supreme Court Case Ravin v. Alaska. This law is deeply rooted in Alaskan's shared appreciation of the right to privacy, a very "don't start none, won't be none" approach to self-governance. In 1990, a voter initiative was passed that made it illegal to have or smoke pot in your own home, essentially undoing Ravin v. Alaska. In 1998, medicinal cannabis was legalized in Alaska, but without the provisions for medicinal dispensaries. This meant that people who were able to obtain a prescription for marijuana and a medical card could either grow their own or designate a caregiver to cultivate their medicine. And since the majority of medical marijuana patients are not well enough to grow their own medicine, this unrealistic expectation forces patients to find someone they trust enough to grow their medicine or, in many cases, access to the black market. This fueled a boom in black market sales, which contributed to a rise in crime and cannabis related arrests. In 2000, a voter initiative was introduced that would have reinstated the pre-1990 laws, allowing anyone 18 and older to possess and or grow their own, expunge legal records of those with cannabis related convictions, and create an advisory board to research cannabis. However, this failed to pass as well. In 2004, we anted up and again tried to pass a voter initiative to legalize cannabis under different provisions. Again this failed to pass, but by a much closer margin. The winds of change were blowing, but barely enough to blow trees.
On August 29th, 2013, then U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued an enforcement memo detailing the areas the Federal Government would focus on when enforcing federal drug laws in states that legalized or decriminalized cannabis. The memo suggested that each state that votes to go this route should be able to manage the concerns that come along with the legalization of cannabis, such as public health, public safety, and law enforcement allocations. In Basic English, that means that feds would take a step back when it comes to door kicking enforcement, allowing states to experiment with self-regulation sans the looming concern of federal interference. This memo doesn't in any way, shape, or form translate to asylum from federal prosecution of Schedule 1 drug related crimes, but it provides for a grey area loophole that many people are willing to explore with the protection of their states regulatory parameters.
Guidance Regarding Marijuana Related Financial Crimes memo via justice.gov
Shortly after the Cole memo dropped, there was a reminder from the Department of Treasury that any bank that aided a cannabis business in their financial dealings would still be subject to federal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act. Even though it outlined the thought process of reduced federal involvement in legitimate state regulated cannabis business, it failed to provide protection or legitimacy of the funds deposited or documented on federal tax forms from such entities. Banks want nothing to do with money that is connected to cannabis sales. Talk about a buzz kill and a stupid amount of cash to stash. Fast forward to November of 2014: the voter initiative we introduced to legalize recreational Marijuana passed with 53% of the vote. It was a close one, but it happened thanks to a strong campaign and the abundance of supporters that stood behind it. A perfect example of the power of the people’s voice and will in Alaska.
So, we legalized cannabis, now what?
I couldn't think of anyone better to enlighten our perspective on such a topic than my close friends, the Abel family. I've been lucky enough to know the founders of Greatland Ganja, LLC for more than a decade. This Alaska grown family business consists of Master Cultivator Elder Seymour Abel and his two sons Leif and Arthur.
Staying true to form when representing small business in Alaska, people take an active role in participating in the process that shapes the rules and regulations surrounding said personal interest. Greatland Ganja has done just that. From day one, all founders of business have taken an active and public role in advocating for reasonable regulations surrounding legalization of marijuana in Alaska. Leif holds a chair on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Marijuana Task Force and is the Executive Director for the Coalition for the Responsible Cannabis Legislation (CRCL), an advocacy group that campaigned for the legalization of marijuana in Alaska. The CRCL has worked tirelessly to advocate for reasonable and informed cannabis regulations by providing education, support, and continuing to bridge the gap in communication with the legislation process and the general public. Leif also sits on the board of directors for the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, a new organization that was created to support future marijuana business owners in achieving success and overall compliance of state regulations while navigating all areas of business including taxes, real estate, sales, and employee benefits.
It was the 4th of July and we decided to head south to the Abel Family Farmstead on the Kenai Peninsula to shoot the shit about their take on cannabis legalization and what we can expect from future legitimate business ventures in our state. We celebrated the holiday in true American fashion by grilling the bounty of meat provided by past farm residents, watched our kids run and play around the yard, got sunburned, and roasted marshmallows over a late night fire. We gathered outside at the picnic table the following afternoon to discuss the business and share their multi-generational perspective on growing and regulating cannabis in Alaska.
Elder Seymour still speaks with a genuine southern drawl and bite of dry humor. At the moment, he's kicked back in a lawn chair with his feet resting on the picnic table bench, lit spliff in his hand when he begins to explain to me where it all began for him: "I've grown pot in this state since I was 19-years-old, in every opportunity that I have had legally, and I'm proud of it. By now, it’s a part of me, there aint no denying that." He flashes his broad smile at me while his son Leif echo's his father’s sentiment: “I grew up with marijuana plants next to the tomato plants in the greenhouse. It was a natural part of our upbringing."
Leif Abel is the eldest Abel brother and co-founder of Greatland Ganja. He shares the daily farm responsibilities with his extended family, as well as a general contracting business with his brother Arthur. All three founders have carried medical cards for cannabis and have grown their own medicine when legally permitted. A few years back when it looked like legalization of recreational cannabis was on the horizon, Seymour suggested to his sons that they go into business together and utilize their combined skills to set a standard for legitimate cannabis business in Alaska. From this, Greatland Ganja, LCC was born.
Right now, Greatland Ganja is strictly focused on branding and promoting their business while awaiting the state regulations to be completed. They intend to apply for the required licensure that will afford them the opportunity to cultivate high quality cannabis to be sold throughout the state in regulated dispensaries. Through this business venture they hope to remain completely funded by resources from within our state, ensuring the revenue generated by the business benefits the local economy and stays in Alaska. This, friends, is a shining example of small Alaska business.
What sets Greatland Ganja apart from other potential cannabis businesses is their commitment to safety, education, quality, and tradition. Through our entire sit down together there was not one topic that did not encompass all these subjects in their entirety. We started discussing the traditional use of cannabis, back in the days when it was referred to as the “people’s plant.”
For personal medicinal use. Photo / Chevelle Abel
“The more we learn, the better,” Art says. “But we don’t want to overregulate cannabis just because we have more knowledge. Everyone’s personal dosing is different, the traditional way to medicate is by self-experience, and we should strive to honor the traditional use of this medicine the best we can.”
So how do we avoid the over-regulation of cannabis but still promote sustainable business models?
Leif answers: “It’s simple. When looking at regulations–if the main concern isn’t safety, then get rid of it–we should focus on what we can control when it comes to our product. Things like how we grow it and what we put in our plants, how its potency is tested, how it’s packaged and marketed, educate the public on the effects of cannabis and advocate for more research. It is important to remember to not hold the cannabis industry to standards that don’t exist due to lack of research.”
His last sentiment is a reminder of the importance of furthering medicinal and recreational uses of cannabis. The lack of research has but one origin, the fact that Marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug, sharing rank with Heroin, LSD and Ecstasy. The definition of Schedule 1 controlled substances is as follows: “A substance not fit for human consumption with the high potential for abuse.” I’m sure the majority of people would shake their head at this description and call bullshit (I do too), but it’s the reality of where we are today. Ideally, decriminalizing Marijuana all together would not only open doors to research and incredible advances in medicinal uses, but it would also open doors to small business owners and, essentially, eliminate a need for the black market.
“We have to look at this realistically, if we have no successful cannabis businesses here in Alaska the black market will continue as usual. With successful business you will see people responsibly medicated, operating within the law and contributing to their community. Why wouldn’t we encourage this social shift,” Arthur questions as we wrap up our discussion in the summer sun on the farm grounds. We all voiced our agreement and embraced our collective stance on what legalization had the potential to look like in our home state.
Right now, we are in the critical mass stage when it comes to furthering legalization and regulation of cannabis in our state. We have a solid timeline and have appointed the Marijuana Control Board to write the regulations. Public comment weighs heavily on the development of these regulations and is still open through September 10, 2015; the regulations are due to be completed in late November with the first licenses processed and issued in February of 2016. And the first legal sales of Marijuana is slated to happen in May of 2016. If you plan to participate in the Cannabis industry in a legitimate way, get your ducks in a row and get your money right because this will not be a cheap process. If you just wanna blaze up from the floor up, then do that, but do it responsibly. But most importantly, if you want your voice to be heard, then speak up. Attend the meetings that are open to the public and share your perspective on what our generation has to contribute to the cannabis industry. Get involved, be honest, and do Alaska proud. There is no better time than right fuckin’ now.
For regulations and public commentary on the legalization of weed in The Last Frontier, visit the the Alaska Department of Commerce.