ALASKA WEED INDUSTRY UPDATE
Words / Whitney Branshaw
Photos / Pakalolo Supply Co., Chevelle Abel
It’s been just under two years since Alaska decided to legalize recreational cannabis. Ya’ll read that right. Two years and we have yet to see a legal sale occur. But we are close my friends, so fucking close. The intention behind this update is to catch everyone up to speed on the current happenings in the marijuana industry. We also need to discuss how important it is for everyone in favor of regulation and legalization to stay involved in the cause. Our buck did not stop when we said “Yes” to Prop 2 in November of 2014. We are still on the clock. So let’s get down to business. Here goes.
Retail, Retail, Retail. Or what everyone knows it as – Dispensaries. Folks ask me on the daily, “what’s the reasoning behind this taking so long?” The answer to that question is lack of infrastructure. The states that have come before us had legal medicinal sales already in place. Those states were handed start dates to switch over medicinal sales to include recreational sales. You have an ID? You’re 21 and over? Great! Come on in! Not us ya’ll. This is one of the many reasons for patience. We’re building from the ground up and that shit takes time.
The other delay lives in the world of local government. A lot of people have the perception that once a business obtains approval for their license through the state that means they get to open up shop that day. This is far from the reality. That business also has to meet the requirements of their local government before actually opening their doors. In Anchorage, that means you get to tango with the municipality, who is operating under codes that are decades old and that have nothing to do with a marijuana business and the special concerns and accommodation’s that come along with those businesses. This can be maddening, to say the least, but for those dedicated to being a part of this new industry in Alaska, it is navigable.
Enter Kim Kole, owner of Raspberry Roots, LLC – a soon to be retail and cultivation facility here in Anchorage. Kim has been active in the cannabis industry since the “Yes” on 2 campaign rolled out in 2014. She is on the board for the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association (AMIA), the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation (CRCL) and a member of the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association (ACBA). This woman obviously has the experience to conquer the mountain that is the Municipality of Anchorage. Kim holds state license approvals for two license types – she goes in front of the Municipality for her local government approval October 18 for cultivation and November 15 for retail. She tells me her state application was a walk in the park compared to dealing with local government, but also understands the reasoning behind delays: “We are a whole new industry. No one laid a plan out for all of us to follow. We had to blaze our own trails and I think for what we had to work with in the beginning we have come light years.” Kim also expresses concern over the possible reality of not having enough product to supply the whole state when retail locations first open. “When I open my store, I intend to stay open. I don’t want to have to shutter my windows six weeks into opening because I don’t have product to put on my shelves. That hurts my employees, my customers and my business. That means we won’t open until we are confident we can supply our own shelves, regardless if we are ready to go or not.” Kim hopes to accomplish this by using the product that she grows herself and by networking with other businesses she has created relationships with through her work with the cannabis movement in our state.
The other clincher in all this is the fact that we don’t have testing facilities up and running yet. Being able to test cannabis products is the cornerstone in a regulated market. Without testing facilities we have no way to stock the shelves of retail locations that are almost ready to open. CannTest LLC, is a testing facility in Anchorage that plans to open at the end of October to early November, permitting the city’s approval. AK Green Labs LLC also has state approval and is awaiting municipality approval as well. So what does this all mean? We can safely say that we will see legal sales for adult cannabis use around early November and, worst-case scenario, by the holiday season. Merry Christmas, weed smokers!
THE MARIJUANA CONTROL BOARD CHANGe-UP
This is important shit, guys. So pay attention. Many of you who follow the cannabis movement in Alaska know about Bruce Schulte being removed from his positon on the Marijuana Control Board in July. On June 9, he was replaced as Chair of the MCB with the public safety seat holder, Peter Mlynarik, the Soldotna Chief of police. Following his removal as chair, he was fired from the board by Governor Walker on July 29 by voicemail left by one of his staff. His removal came as a surprise to the cannabis community as there was little to no explanation as to why he was actually removed. That’s the thing though kids, there doesn’t need to be an explanation. Those that serve in any appointed board seat in this state serve at the pleasure of the Governor. As evidenced by Schulte’s early departure. I got a chance to speak with Bruce by phone this week and he explained to me his perception of why he was removed from the MCB. “The governor had every right to dismiss me at any time. I don’t dispute that. The issue I take with it is his reasoning. The problem that the Governor had with me was that, as chair of the Marijuana Control Board, I would not stand for Director Cynthia Franklin enforcing her own personal interpretation of the law. That’s why I was removed, because I challenged her and her authority.”
Schulte took the opportunity to let his thoughts be heard at the Joint House and Senate Judiciary Hearing on September 14, 2016. The joint informational meeting was called to allow legislators the opportunity to get information and ask questions of the Marijuana Control Board and industry members, as well as the public surrounding all pertinent issues in the community. During that hearing he read a prepared statement and shared his thoughts on what might make this industry stronger through the help of these elected officials. In that statement, he explained steps he thought would improve the MCB process. Those steps included, “refining regulations to remove unnecessary impediments to industry success and to require Director Franklin to disclose any actions taken on behalf of the board that can reasonably be expected to affect any business in the state.” The meeting was successful in the sense that it gave the legislators the opportunity to join in the conversation of this controversial topic and gain insight from industry members surrounding perceived delays in this new state process.
Schulte ended our conversation with this: “From a former board members perspective I feel that the state process has stayed about as on schedule as we can hope. I can’t praise the licensing and enforcement staff enough for all the incredible work they have done, especially Sarah Oates and James Hoelscher’s respective teams at AMCO. They have excelled beyond expectation over the last 12 to 18 months. I plan to stay active in the industry as we press on and look forward to seeing where we are a year from now.” Governor Walker announced on August 24 that Schulte’s former industry seat on the MCB would be filled by Nick Miller of Anchorage. Miller is Chair of the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association and has been approved by the state to open a retail store (AlaskaBuds LLC) in Anchorage. Miller did not respond to a request for comment.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that Schulte was replaced as Chair on the MCB by Peter Mlynarik, the Soldotna Chief of Police? Well, Mlynarik holds the public safety seat on the MCB thanks to his law enforcement background. And days before Schulte’s removal from the board was announced, it came to light that Mlynarik is a registered signature gatherer for a petition that circulated the Kenai Peninsula Borough resulting in the initiative that will be on the October 2017 ballot asking the community if they want to ban commercial cannabis. Before we go any further, let me break down the purpose of the MCB. The purpose of the MCB is to regulate and encourage the industry. Not work to end it before it has even had a chance to show its capability. The MCB is an agency of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The mission statement on the Commerce Alaska website states the purpose of this department is “to promote a healthy economy, stronger communities and protect consumers in Alaska.” Why is this important, you ask? The answer seems simple: when you are given a position of power to promote economic development in our state you don’t do that by trying to ban the source of that economic development, especially when you hold the highest authority on the MCB. Mlynarik has done just that. But what he hasn’t done in this process is engage in a conflict of interest. According to the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act, appointed board members are allowed to participate in local politics surrounding their positions as long as they do not have anything to gain personally from action the board would take on its pertinent subject. However, some suggest that Mylnarik does have something to gain by advocating for the ban in his community, in that law enforcement officials generate revenue from drug violations in their communities. If the ban vote for the Kenai Peninsula Borough in October 2017 is successful, then commercial operations would be illegal, thus resulting in subsequent drug busts that could potentially generate revenue for local law enforcement. Muddy waters, right?
I reached out to Jana Weltzin, a local attorney who owns JDW, LLC, a law firm representing several of the industry’s up and coming cannabis business owners, for clarification surrounding this issue. “Legally, Mlynarik hasn’t done anything wrong, but I look at it from this perspective: the governor appoints you to this positon of power because he believes you will help fulfill the will of the people. Then you go in front of the Legislature and echo that belief that he has in you, that you will fulfill the will of the people. Then you go out into the public and do the exact opposite of what you said you were going to do by using your position of authority to sway people to side with you. That doesn’t feel good to me. Part of me believes that the decision he made to help collect signatures for the ban was just a part of being human and that it was a mistake in judgment given the responsibility he has through the MCB to regulate, not ban this industry.” While some in the industry are strong in their belief that there is an ethical issue with him being involved in gathering signatures to support the ban vote, his record on the MCB shows that he has voted “Yes” on all licenses that could be affected by this potential ban. “Hopefully the trend of support that he shows for the industry while acting on the board is evidenced by his future decisions in whether or not he wants to send conflicting messages to the public.” The bottom line is this: he hasn’t done anything legally wrong. But Attorney Weltzin has a point when she talks about sending conflicting messages. Gaining the trust of the public includes sending consistent messages about your positions and then demonstrating actions that support those positions. If history as shown us anything, I don’t expect this will be the last we hear of conflict of interest among MCB members and how our government defines what is “right” and what is “wrong.”
COMMUNITIES FACING BAN VOTES
When we legalized recreational cannabis we also gave communities the option to “opt out” of commercial cannabis through local government. Three of the most potentially prominent pot communities have done just that. On October 4, the Mat-Su Borough and North Pole City in the Fairbanks North Star Borough will vote on a borough wide ban. The Kenai Peninsula Borough managed to certify enough signatures to put a borough wide ban on the October 2017 ballot. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has certified signatures for a potential ban vote to be put on the 2017 ballot as well. These petitions to gather signatures in support of a ban vote are notoriously led by religious folks who can’t see past their own convictions, but understand the potential power of their collective numbers. If I have this whole God thing right, he created the marijuana plant, right? So what the fuck did he want us to do with it? I doubt he just wanted us to look at it. My heart tells me if this whole God theory is true, then he knew of the many medicinal properties this plant was capable of, right? Sure. Weed is pretty and many people enjoy looking at. But it’s not a Star Gazer Lily, ok? It serves many valuable purposes. But rational thinking is beside the point on this one, folks. The only thing we can do to thwart the efforts of uniformed prohibitionists is to continue to exercise our rights through democracy and vote.
Leif Abel, co-founder of Greatland Ganja shares this insight, “we have to come together and say, “ok, if we want this, we need to be public. By “us” I mean people who care about safe access to cannabis, not just cannabis businesses in the industry. The medical patients in this state will only get safe accesses through this regulated market, whether you want to call it recreational or not. So what we have to do is show them who we are. We’ve been your neighbors all along. We’ve been doing this safely a long time. We have to normalize this kind of responsible use. In order to do this, we have to communicate a lot. There are so many folks that are engrained with the anti-drug propaganda and it’s not even their fault. It’s up to us to say, "we need this. We already voted once for it, we will vote for it a second time. Heck, we will vote on it a third time. We are not afraid to exercise our rights.'"
Abel reminds us that the buck did not stop with passing the initiative to legalize cannabis in this state. That was only the beginning. If you are a registered voter in these communities, now is the time to mobilize supporters more than ever. The only way to win this battle is by coming together and continuing to voice the will of the people. The hope from the cannabis industry is that these communities will see the revenue generated by taxes and the increase in jobs, making it a no-brainer to support them in continuing to operate and contribute to their local needs through tax revenue. Remember, the solution to this problem is numbers, and numbers alone. Show up and let your voice be heard.
CULTIVATORS TO WATCH
With retail on the horizon, some might be wondering, “where can I expect to see top shelf product from?” A familiar name in the cannabis community is Pakalolo Supply Co., a commercial cultivation operation and future retail location in Fairbanks, Alaska. Pakalolo Supply Co. was the first business in the state to be issued a Marijuana Cultivation License. It’s a family run business, consisting of father Cole Hollister and his two sons Keenan and Tyler and close family friend Walker Milliken. Keenan is Vice president of the company and shares his excitement with me surrounding impending legal sales: “This is two years of constant work in the making for us and we can’t wait to share our product with this state. Our goal is to provide top shelf product and unique strains that we will cultivate with love in our facility.” Keenan explains that the first retail location to open in the state could very well be in the Fairbanks area due to the local government process being easier to move through. “From what I’ve heard, [Fairbanks’s] local government process has been easier to navigate than the Anchorage municipality. But what really hinders cultivators who are ready to sell their product is the fact that we don’t have testing facilitates running yet to grade our product. No one will see any revenue at all until we have that avenue open and available to all of us regardless to where you are in proximity to any retail location.”
Two signature strains you can expect to see from Pakalolo Supply Co. are Mauna Kea Whitefire OG and Pele Fire OG, both Indica dominant strains. In the spring we will see signature Sativa dominant strains including Maui Mango Diesel and Maui Pineapple Chunk just in time to keep your energy up for the longer days we can expect with the season change. Keenan tells me his hopes for the future: “I want to see this become a viable industry where jobs are provided to residents and one where the consumer gets to customize their choice in the marijuana that they buy from a regulated and safe market in this state. This is what I want to celebrate a year from now.”
Pakalolo plants //
Greatland Ganja continues to see the fruits of their labor as they spent the better part of September processing their fall harvest that was grown outdoors over the summer in Gnome Domes. “It’s been a very busy and exciting time for all of us. We essentially have been working around the clock,” Abel tells me during a phone call in between business meetings. They are among the first to harvest and are anxiously waiting to send their product for testing so it can be sold at retail locations. Like all cultivators in the state, continuing to progress forward hinges solely on when they can get their product tested. From Greatland Ganja, we can expect to see top shelf strains including White Widow, Jack the Ripper and the well-known Pineapple Express.
Looking to the future of the marijuana industry in Alaska, Abel is nothing but positive. “We’ve come a long way when it comes to industry progress. I grew up in the cannabis culture. We had helicopters in our yards and police officers with assault rifles and flak jackets. My children don’t have to put up with that. When you take it from that point, in the long-view we’re doing great things and making incredible progress. I’m sure that a year from now we will have the foundation of a strong and viable industry in our state. It has been an honor to be a part of this movement and watch it unfold firsthand.”
Greatland plants // Leif and Art Abel
Greatland Ganja is looking at supplying product to at least 15 retail locations across the state and expects that number to grow with time. I hope ya’ll are looking forward to trying this industry leaders product and can spot their brand by their signature logo – the intertwined capital G’s and ever recognizable marijuana leaf.