Today is high time for low prices as many local marijuana shops celebrate the international counterculture holiday known as 4/20, although the mood is sober for some as plans for the town’s first on-site consumables outlet have gone up in smoke, and the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic is casting a haze over retail sales.
”It’s a big thing for a lot of shops,” said Axel Gillam, inventory supervisor for the Alaskan Kush Company, where a variety of inventory-clearing specials are being promoted. “It’s a way to get a boost before the tourism season starts.”
Naturally there are strict rules for those purchasing and using what the feds still classify as an illegal substance, including the prohibition of consuming items on-site at Juneau’s existing outlets. There were signs that might change March 8 when the Juneau Planning Commission unanimously approved an on-site consumables permit to Blissful Awakenings LLC at 216 Second St.
But those plans went quickly awry afterward. Tara Smith, in an email, said she abandoned her hopes for an on-site dispensary due to a combination of a lengthy state process to obtain the when the would-be operator subsequently sought the necessary retail license and “landlord and rent flexibility.”
She stated she found out at the beginning of March her application with the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office (AAMCO) was scheduled for review in September, and it appeared the approval process would take a total of about nine months. She also stated there were also disputes with another company already leasing the space that would subsequently be shared, which presented legal and financial challenges too great to overcome.
“I just no longer felt comfortable in going forward with all the prior circumstances involved with the location,” she wrote. “It breaks my heart.”
A city public comment period for the proposed store between Feb. 15 and March 4 resulted in only one letter from Rachel E. Smith who argued strongly in favor of its approval.
“I would love nothing more than to see this business succeed, as the owner is a very strong woman who has overcome so much adversity in her life, and still charges forward with the courage to pursue her dreams and provide for herself and her children,” Smith wrote.
However, it appears “when they heard about the wait they decided not to follow through,” said Carrie Craig, the records and licensing supervisor who is also the acting director at AAMCO. She said while “the numbers change all the time” in terms of the number of applicants waiting to have licenses processed, based on workload and staffing, “it is a very complicated process.”
“We do tell applicants they should plan for a four- to six-month application processing time,” she said.
“It’s such a new industry the regulations are changing constantly, almost every meeting.”
Four on-site consumables locations have been approved in Alaska: two in Fairbanks, one in Ketchikan and one in Juneau, Craig said. But the approval in Juneau, for Alaska Vibes LLC at 10011 Glacier Highway, is in delegated status.
“That means before we issue a license and endorsement we’re waiting for input from other agencies,” she said.
Gillam, who said the owner of the downtown store he works at hoped to open the Glacier Highway on-site consumables location, said plans are seemingly on indefinite hold for practical as well as bureaucratic reasons.
“There’s a lot of loopholes you have to jump through to get the edibles endorsement,” he said. “It just got to the point where there’s so much that went into the licensing process we just put our energy into other stuff.”
Among the drawbacks are products consumed indoors on-site are limited to 10 grams of THC that are eaten rather than smoked, which typically have an hour or so lag to take effect and therefore diminish the appeal of on-site use.
“I think if flower consumption was an option like smoking it’d be 100% for sure our shop would do it and I’m sure others here would as well,” he said.
The owner of his store did consider an outdoor smoking area with a dog park, but also has put off seriously pursuing the possibility for some time, Gillam said.
“It’s just a matter of having the funds for a buildout is my understanding of it,” he said.
Those funds aren’t flowing as freely as a year ago, when the high point of COVID-19 restrictions was also a high point for sales, Gillam said. But with the pandemic fading – or at least the restrictions enacted due to it – people once confined at home and relying on assistance are now returning to work.
“As businesses have opened back up it’s become incredibly dry,” he said.
A steady stream of customers came into the store at midday Tuesday, some inquiring about 4/20 specials. Gillam said he expects sales before and on that celebratory date to be strong, although that too has been odd at times lately.
“Last year it was a normal day; it was really perplexing,” he said. This year is unknown since the date is on a Wednesday.
“If it were on a Friday or Saturday it’d be busier,” he said.
The first cruise ships of the year arrive in Juneau next week and Gillam said he expects that will be a big chunk of his store’s sales, especially given the post-pandemic downturn.
“We’re actually banking on a busy tourism season,” he said.
But that’s not what’s in the atmosphere at all local dispensaries. George Fisher, a budtender at the Fireweed Factory downtown, said he hasn’t seen a post-pandemic dropoff and about 90% of sales in terms of revenue are to locals, even during peak tourism season.
“Typically a tourist will come in and buy one joint for six people,” he said.
Fisher, whose store is featuring $4 joints for 4/20, said the owner has pondered the possibility of an on-site consumables store, but like other hopefuls there’s a wisp of it becoming reality.
“We’ve always thought about it, but it’s all about location,” he said. “As far as I’ve seen it’s not happening.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at Mark.Sabbatini@juneauempire.com.