Alex Alf, cultivation manager at Stoned Salmon Farms, displays a marijuana variety called Blissful Wizzard, on April 16. He said this variety of marijuana was developed to relieve epilepsy symptoms. Alf said that cultivating marijuana in Alaska requires experimentation to fine-tune the final product. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Checking in on a budding local industry

Even in the face of pandemic, business stays high.

Today and every year on April 20, marijuana enthusiasts across the country celebrate the use of cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes. Juneau’s residents can celebrate without the worry of arrest because Alaska is one of a growing number of states that have legalized recreational marijuana use. Since legalization in 2015, the industry has grown, and Juneau hosts a thriving community of cultivators, manufacturers and retail shops.

To mark this April 20, we took a look at the local marijuana scene.

Marijuana is a booming business

Six years after Alaska’s voters passed Ballot Measure 2 to legalize marijuana, the industry is growing, said Lacy Wilcox, president of Alaska’s Marijuana Industry Association.

According to Wilcox, Alaska currently has 435 active marijuana licenses, with 20 in Juneau. Juneau’s licenses include nine cultivators, nine retailers and two manufacturers. Additional license applications are pending with the state.

She said that it’s difficult to pinpoint how the industry will look in five years, but the signs are positive.

“Our tax revenue is going up and up. Possibly that’s telling us that people are moving away from the unregulated market and purchasing it from regulated outlets,” Wilcox said.

She said that the industry is still searching for equilibrium with products and taxes that are stable and predictable.

“We aren’t a mature marketplace. But, we aren’t a baby or a toddler either,” she said. “We see successes and failures. Some people have come in and left. Maybe it was more difficult, maybe too many regulations or they were not profitable,” she said.

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Marijuana is COVID-proof

Throughout the COVID-19 restrictions of the last year, the industry has remained strong.

“Our local consumer has kept us doing well. It’s not all about the tourists. We didn’t fall apart, with travel restrictions,” Wilcox said.

She said that travel restrictions meant that less unregulated marijuana entered Juneau, which likely boosted the retail market.

“We didn’t see a lot of black market stuff coming in, and that put people into the recreational, legal, taxed store,” Wilcox said. “The industry has been quite a rock star through all of this and we have remained relevant, open and busy.”

Marijuana provides jobs

Wilcox said the industry provides jobs throughout the state, though an official number is not available because the state does not conduct official labor surveys for the industry.

Anyone handling marijuana in Alaska, from budtenders at retail shops to people involved in cultivation, must hold a state-issued marijuana handler’s card.

“We guess that based on the number of people with marijuana handler cards, there are 6,000 full-time paycheck earners in the state,” she said.

Cannabis is a local crop

All marijuana sold through legal, regulated stores in Alaska is grown in Alaska, Wilcox said.

“There’s nothing more Alaskan than Alaska cannabis,” she said.

Because Alaska’s weather is not conducive to agriculture, growers need indoor space, full-spectrum light, humidity control and irrigation to succeed. But, because cultivators don’t need public access to their operation, lower-population and more remote areas of the state can enter the industry through cultivation.

“There are quite a few cultivators near Kenai, on Prince of Wales Island, and in Haines, Skagway and Sitka,” Wilcox said.

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Growing takes time and expertise

According to Alex Alf, cultivation manager at Stoned Salmon Farms in Juneau, growing marijuana requires experimentation to fine-tune the final product.

Alf said he has a lifelong interest in gardening and has been growing marijuana for about 10 years, with the last three spent locally after he relocated from Wisconsin.

“There’s a lot more freedom in Alaska,” Alf said.

He said a plant completes the growing cycle in 60-73 days, depending on the variety.

Alf explained that different varieties have different flavor profiles and different scents. He said that some types help with certain medical conditions or general aches and pain.

“There are lots of different aromas,” he said. “Some have a citrus scent. One smells just like blueberry muffins.”

What’s popular in Alaska

Wilcox said that Alaskans love the marijuana flower, which is often smoked via a pipe, water pipe or rolling papers. However, she noted that pre-rolled joints are growing in popularity because social distancing and virus mitigation makes it difficult to pass around a shared resource.

She said that concentrated vaping products and edibles are growing in popularity, too.

“Edibles are popular, but it’s a higher price point for the potency,” she said.

Innovations to watch

Wilcox expects several new products to enter the market as more raw product becomes available.

“There are a thousand cannabis products out there that have not reached Alaska yet,” she said, citing marijuana-infused beverages as an example of a product that may hit the local market.

“New products require more product and cultivation. We are starting to see multiple forms of gummies, but we need more base ingredients. We need to get more farms online to get them growing and harvesting before we put them into cool new products,” she said.

Advice for the curious

If you are over age 21 and thinking of trying marijuana for the first time, Wilcox suggests starting with an edible.

“Start low and go slow,” she said, suggesting a single serving with a 5-milligram potency.

“If nothing is happening after an hour, have a second, then stop,” she advised. “Go slowly. Every human has a different receptor level.”

If you are interested in something quicker, she suggests trying a pre-rolled joint.

“You get quick results. You’ll know right away,” she said.

When selecting a pre-roll, Wilcox said you want to find a suitable variety for the occasion. She suggests a Sativa pre-roll to enjoy before hiking. She said Indica is a good winter option because it will make you want to curl up on the couch.

Like any intoxicant, there are risks associated with marijuana use. Before you indulge, check out the marijuana section of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to learn more about the risks.

What’s legal, what’s not

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Public Safety Division’s website, adults 21 and older can possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home for personal use. Three of the plans can be mature and flowering.

According to the site, adults can give up to an ounce of marijuana and six plants away to another adult at least 21.

Marijuana use is illegal for people under 21, can not be used on federal lands or public places that aren’t specifically designated for use.

Don’t use and drive

If you do plan to celebrate, do so safely.

“Don’t drive while high. Respect the budtender. Get it where it’s legal and safe,” said Wilcox.

Alaska State Troopers will have an increased presence on Alaska roadways on April 20 as they look for drivers impaired by intoxicating substances, including marijuana, the agency said in a news release on Monday.

“Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not only illegal, but it puts the lives of everyone else on the road in jeopardy. If you choose to consume intoxicating substances, always arrange for a sober driver, or stay the night instead of risking your life and freedom,” stated Col. Bryan Barlow, director of the Alaska State Troopers, in the release.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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