Erika McConnell is an Anchorage resident who wears glasses and a toothy smile. She enjoys reading, the outdoors and caramels.
On March 20, she’ll chew on something new: a job as the state’s top regulator for alcohol and marijuana.
She said her approach to the job will be simple: “My approach is to implement the laws that are in place … to implement them fairly and consistently so that there’s an even playing field.”
It’s something she’s already done: She’s spent 14 years as a planner for the Municipality of Anchorage and for the past 18 months has been what the Alaska Journal of Commerce called “Anchorage’s marijuana whip,” coordinating all questions about Alaska’s new industry and directing city authorities in responses to those questions.
“I think my experience both content-wise and sort of process-wise makes me a good fit,” McConnell said.
McConnell hailed as tough, detail-oriented
Anchorage has been slow to welcome the marijuana industry when compared to Fairbanks, Valdez and Juneau. Its stores opened later, after overcoming more regulatory hurdles than their counterparts elsewhere.
The owners of those stores said those issues weren’t McConnell’s fault. In fact, they probably would have been worse without her.
“When I heard her name, I thought, wow, we couldn’t have asked for a better person,” said Bryant Thorp, owner of Arctic Herbery, the first marijuana retail shop to open in Anchorage.
Anchorage attorney Jana Weltzin represents several marijuana businesses in Anchorage and has dealt with McConnell repeatedly.
“She’s not going to be fabulous for the industry. She’s going to be tough on the industry. She’s more detail-oriented. She wants more clarity,” Weltzin said.
She might be tough, but it’s a good kind of toughness, she added.
“She’s not going to be this ‘anything flows’ for the industry,” Weltzin said. “A mature and smart industry will respect that because that is how we keep our industry safe from federal intervention.”
That federal intervention may be the key issue of McConnell’s tenure. In the same week the Alaska Department of Commerce announced McConnell’s appointment, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer warned that the Trump administration might soon abandon the hands-off approach of the Obama administration when it comes to recreational marijuana.
Though nine states have legalized the production, sale and use of recreational marijuana, it remains illegal at a federal level.
Fred Parady, the state’s assistant commerce commissioner, praised McConnell’s thoughtfulness on regulations, calling her “even-handed, steady and unbiased.”
He admitted, however, that McConnell was picked for her ability to cope with complicated state regulations, and the issue of the federal government “was not a central concern” during the interview process.
Tourist trip led to life in Alaska
McConnell grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and attended St. John’s College in that state.
After she graduated in 1993, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.
A vacation to visit a cousin brought her to Alaska for the first time. Like many transplants, a tourist trip inspired something.
She worked in a Bristol Bay cannery for a summer, then shifted to Anchorage full-time in 1995, working first at Title Wave Books. That was followed by a yearlong stint with the Alaska Center for the Environment, and her experience there inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in planning ─ something she hadn’t considered before.
“It seemed a great way to both foster development, yet protect those areas one loves or are important for other reasons,” she said.
McConnell is open about her love for Anchorage as a place.
“I love what lots of us love: That there’s so much natural, wild beauty that is so accessible,” she said. “You can live in a city, but you can also get into the wilderness.”
She attended a program in Massachusetts, then returned to Alaska to work in the Legislature for a session, for Gov. Tony Knowles, and for the state’s coastal management program. In 2003, she joined the Municipality of Anchorage as an associate planner. She stayed with the planning department for the next 12 years, switching to marijuana planning in 2015.
‘Passionate about government’
McConnell represents a switch from the past two directors of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. Shirley Coté was a longtime police officer in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula before she was named director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in 2008.
Coté resigned in 2014 and was replaced by Cynthia Franklin, an Anchorage prosecutor who became ABC’s director a month and a half before Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2 and legalized recreational marijuana here.
Franklin left her job in January after overseeing every step of the marijuana industry’s formation from the ballot box to the first store opening, which happened in the last days of October 2015.
McConnell, it’s clear, views public service as a calling.
“I’m passionate about government,” she said. “I think there’s a wonderful role for government in trying to help people and trying to make people’s lives better.”
McConnell’s last boss in Anchorage was Chris Schutte, director of economic development for the city.
“She’s got a wicked sharp mind. She’s able to retain, know or find vast amounts of information,” he said of McConnell. “She was the planning staff person who fully embraced the changes coming with the legalization of marijuana and really dove into that subject matter head-first.”
Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 419-7732.