Paperwork fight won, Sitka pot shop opens

SITKA — On the last day of 2016, Sitka’s first legal marijuana retail shop opened its doors with roughly 10 pounds of pot for sale.

Michelle Cleaver, owner of Weed Dudes, greeted the customers in front of her Sawmill Creek Plaza shop Saturday morning. About a dozen people were waiting outside for her to open the doors right after 10 a.m.

“Welcome to weed land,” she told them. “It’s history. We’ve never done this before.”

The Sitka shop’s opening was historic in more ways than one. As far as Cleaver knows, she is the first person in the state to legally fly with marijuana products. In order to get the product to Sitka from her Alaska supplier, Greatland Ganja in the Kenai Peninsula community of Kasilof, Cleaver had to navigate many levels of red tape to get clearance to fly with the marijuana.

“It has been a crazy couple days,” Cleaver said. “My paperwork weighed 14 pounds for 10 pounds of pot.”

Federal law prohibits transporting marijuana by airplane, mail or ferry. But the state’s Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office has put faith in a statement called the Cole Memo, which basically exempts marijuana businesses from federal prosecution in states that have legalized marijuana.

“The Cole Memo essentially says that if a licensed, regulated marijuana business is strictly complying with robust state regulations, it can conduct activities relating to marijuana that are otherwise illegal at the federal level,” the AMCO website says. “We believe this includes transportation.”

Cynthia Franklin, director of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, said today the transportation was in complete compliance with state regulations as required by the Cole Memo. Franklin is unsure if Cleaver was the first to fly with marijuana, though.

Cleaver had to get approval from the Ted Stevens International Airport police, Alaska Airlines, the FAA, the TSA and AMCO, she said.

“It’s hard to get all the agencies to work together,” Cleaver said.

Once she got approval, she had to create a detailed travel manifest to track every piece of legal marijuana “from seed to sale” to comply with state regulations, Cleaver said. She and her husband each carried around 5 pounds of weed in smell-proof bags zipped into small suitcases. State-licensed marijuana handlers, which Cleaver and her husband are, are allowed to transport up to 5 pounds of marijuana. They arrived in Sitka with the product late Friday night.

On top of the travel logistics, a Friday night power outage in Sitka upset the store’s point-of-sale computer system so every transaction Saturday morning had to be recorded by hand.Weed Dudes employee Matt Vardeman checked IDs at the door to make sure customers were over 21, the minimum age under state law to be in the store.

Purchases had to be made in cash only and the product was stapled shut in brown paper sacks.Cleaver’s first customers were unfazed by the requirements.

“It’s great that it’s finally legal,” said Mike Schinke, also known as Meathead MC. “It’s a new industry, it’s a new boost to the economy. It’s pretty special to be a part of it.”

He said he’s happy marijuana is now regulated – and that he gets a choice in variety. He bought some pre-rolled joints of a strain called “pineapple express.”

“It’s kind of energizing, it’s not the melt-in-the-couch kind,” Schinke explained.

When she opened, Cleaver had 9.8 pounds of weed, including approximately 6,000 pre-rolled joints and a half-pound of bulk bud. As of today, she has only about half left.

“I’m really surprised how well we have done,” she said. “I was hoping it would last a week but we’ll probably be done in the next couple of days.”

RJ Miguel bought five joints of a strain called “space rip” and three of “pineapple express” on Saturday.

“I’m happy we can finally buy marijuana legally in Alaska, especially in Sitka,” he said. “I’m going to go home, light up a joint and see how it is.”

Weed Dudes is among one of the first legal retail stores to open in the state, which now numbers around 10 shops. Herbal Outfitters in Valdez, which opened Oct. 29, was the first in Alaska, more than a year and a half after recreational marijuana became legal in the Last Frontier.

Micah Miller, who has a marijuana cultivation license for his business Northern Lights Indoor Gardens, also in the Sawmill Creek Plaza, harvested his first crop of plants last month and sold it to a store in Skagway. He is in the process of getting a retail license to sell his product on-site.

Cleaver is not sure when she’ll be able to get her next shipment of marijuana. The Alaska Marijuana Control Board needs to review her travel situation to make sure all parties are OK with how it was handled. She also has plans to bring in some edibles from a business in Fairbanks.

“The amount of paperwork I have to go through to get it is crazy,” Cleaver said.

She is set to buy 10 pounds of marijuana from Sitka grower Green Leaf, operated by Aaron Bean on Halibut Point Road. That should be ready in February, she said.

• This story first appeared in the Sitka Daily Sentinel and is republished here with permission.

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