This week marks the grand opening of a whole new industry within Alaska’s unique economy; that of the commercial cannabis sector. While medical marijuana was technically legalized by voters in the United States’ northernmost territory in 1998, the state never permitted the creation or operation of medical cannabis dispensaries, instead only allowing doctor-recommended patients and registered caregivers to grow and possess limited quantities for direct use (even though it left no legal avenue for obtaining seeds). That all changed in 2014 when voters passed Ballot Measure 2, which legalized the use, possession, and sale of recreational cannabis to those over 21, but which also set in motion the political process of regulating a consumer-facing cannabis trade from scratch.
In the two years since, Alaska’s state legislature and the newly created Marijuana Control Board have been writing the rules and procedures for Alaskan cannabis commerce as well as picking which entrepreneurs get to have the first crack at running their own canna-businesses. Industry advocates and activists who originally pushed for legalization have criticized the seemingly sluggish pace of the regulatory process, some even accusing the new Board of intentionally delaying the program due to latent anti-pot sentiment. However after the new board began issuing business licenses, the state’s newly regulated supply chain started to sequentially activate, with as many as twelve farms currently growing cannabis, and the state’s first marijuana testing company going online last week. That latest development means that despite earlier projections that marijuana wouldn’t make it to market in the state until 2017, fresh bud can finally be tested and certified for public sale, thereby enabling Herbal Outfitters in the coastal town of Valdez, Alaska to debut as the state’s first-ever retail pot store this past Saturday.
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of people lined up for the store’s opening at “high noon” on Saturday, some even traveling several hours for the inaugural chance to purchase legal weed. Herbal Outfitters’ general manager Derek Morris told AP that for now the store will only offer dried bud, as edible and concentrate manufacturers are still in the process of obtaining required permits. Local CBS station KTVA reports that two more cannabis retailers, Frozen Buds and Pakalolo Supply Co., respectively plan to open on Monday and Wednesday in Fairbanks, along with Arctic Herbery in Anchorage set to launch in early November.
Many Alaskan municipalities are still figuring out local rules for marijuana businesses, with Fairbanks emerging as an early contender for the center of the new industry thanks to its government’s laissez-faire approach to commercial cannabis; requiring businesses only to get zoning permits as opposed to marijuana-specific local licenses and land use permissions increasingly common in weed-friendly states. Unfortunately for Herbal Outfitters, however, the debate over cannabis regulation isn’t even settled in Valdez – a coalition there gathered enough signatures to put a proposition to ban commercial cannabis on the local ballot next May. Valdez business owner Christy Franklin, one of the measure’s sponsors, says the pot retailer is situated too closely to public facilities that minors patronize.
It remains to be seen how much of an economic boon cannabis will yield for the Alaskan economy, with early analyses uncertain about how much tax revenue cannabis commerce will eventually generate, as well as over how much of a role tourism will play in demand for Alaskan grass. It’s also clear that the debate over fairness in marijuana law and enforcement will continue in Alaska, as cases like that of cannabis activist Charlo Greene continue to spur questions regarding the severity of penalties levied against those participating in an industry approved of by a majority of the state’s citizens. Yet in a region mostly employed by a now-declining oil industry, it’s safe to say that marijuana legalization has at least created a new economic and social frontier for Alaskans to develop and explore.