Sleepless in Alaska: A Look Back Before Adult-Use Legalization

Columns - Guest Column

Cultivator Leif Abel of Greatland Ganja examines the pre-license application process, facility build-out and the rule-making process for Alaska’s Measure 2.

November 18, 2015

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Editor's Note: This column originally appeared in the very first issue of Cannabis Business Times, published November 2015. Leif Abel, co-founder of Greatland Ganja, wrote this while he and his family were awaiting their adult-use license and regulation guidance. Greatland Ganja now cultivates 40 cannabis strains, sun-grown using organic methods and ingredients, on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

Numbers. They woke me up. It is not usual for me, but it’s what has been happening lately. Especially since the “six months until license application” date has come and gone. That was Aug. 24. A number. 230,000 BTUs, 30-foot easement, Sept. 11 Public Comment Deadline on Set 3 of the regulations from the Alaska Marijuana Control Board, two tons, 42 cubic feet of CO2, not to mention the dollar values. This must happen to all small-business owners during a large expansion. Controlling stress is of the utmost importance during this stage of building a cannabis business in Alaska. When numbers wake me up at night, I know I am feeling that stress. This is not unique to a cannabis startup. I could be building a plant to manufacture golf tees, and I think it would be similar. It is a big commitment. Once licensed, we can conceivably begin operating May 24, 2016. Nine months. The State of Alaska’s regulations will not even be solid until Nov. 24. As a business whose feasibility study and subsequent business plan started in January 2013, Greatland Ganja has been planning and making decisions based on educated and well-researched predictions. It was either that, or wait until Nov. 24, when the regulations are done, and then make a plan. That is a terrible time of year to start a building project in Alaska. With the frigid temperatures and constant snow or ice, building costs can double. There is a sense of urgency surrounding this timeline.

The land is good, the prints from the architect look good, after a little time and attention from engineers it will go to the State Fire Marshall for building permitting. Classified as an F1 Fabrication Plant, our architect fondly calls our facility, "The Plant." This makes me smile. It is catching on. We have been pleasantly surprised, here in Alaska, and on the Kenai Peninsula, by what a positive reception we have received from most professionals when working with them on this project. Our architect, for example, had contacted the Fire Marshall and began discussing specifics of marijuana cultivation facilities a month prior to our retaining him. He was gratified and excited when we approached him as his first cannabis client.

The utility companies are prepared for us and have been very professional. Much of this is due to Alaskans adjusting since the passage of Ballot Measure 2. Some of this is also due to our approach to the whole situation. We treat this as any other project or business. There are others who are doing a great job of presenting responsible, professional examples of cannabis businesses in our community as well, and this has been integral. It is possible that marijuana start-ups are being held to a higher standard now than existing companies, but that is to be expected considering the nature of the transition.

The rule-making process has been interesting and time-consuming. Involvement has been critical. The best set of regulations will come from the greatest number of Alaskans providing input. We have been honored to participate. Considering a contract attorney, with little real-world experience in the cannabis community of Alaska, drafted the majority of the regulations, it is critical we adapt them to be uniquely ours. Some key points that seem to be contentious are:

  • The disallowance of out-of-state investment in any Alaskan cannabis company (per the current draft set, at press time).
  • The high regulatory burden that will drive operating costs up for businesses.
  • Fingerprinting and public posting of the business owner’s family and children’s names, and Social Security numbers.
  • The definition of “public” and what is considered a legal place to consume cannabis.
  • Conditional use permitting and zoning in relation to federal laws, schools, churches, prisons and child-centered locations.

These rules should take the best ideas from other states that have legalized marijuana, but should fit our people, our culture and our environment. Each of three sets had a full 30-day, and in some cases 60-day, public comment period. In addition, after the Marijuana Control Board (MCB) adopts a combined version of all three sets, it will be put back up for public comment a final time.

Our involvement is being welcomed, and the paths by which we can be involved are clearly laid out. Sure, no system is perfect, but our state, and specifically the staff of the MCB, have worked hard to make this a fair, transparent and understandable process to the average Alaskan.

Future competitor and ally look very much the same right now.

Still, as I mentioned, involvement on an educated level requires a significant time investment. I would say this is what still affects who we see and hear commenting. Those who are working one or more full-time jobs, raising a family, with little disposable income, are finding it very difficult to be part of this process. I currently put 10 to 20 hours a week toward the rule-making side of this. This is possible for me because my extended family works together. Only some of us can do that. This is the greatest disparity I see now in the process, one we see no matter what the topic—education, health care or foreign policy. It is still somewhat of a class system based on time and money.

Beyond politics, peer and contractor relationships are also key. Just as any other fabrication plant, we will need materials, skilled labor and ancillary services from contractors and vendors. A distribution network for the finished product, beyond what our own retail location will sell, is also essential, so forming relationships with future retailers who are excited to carry our brand is also part of this stage.

Leif Abel, along with his father Seymour and brother Arthur, Leif's partners in the business.
Photo: Alisa Weiss Photography

In addition, keeping good relations with the farmers we know, and the hopeful producers we meet, is key. Future competitor and ally look very much the same right now. We choose to see them as future allies and peers, and keep it friendly. After all, we worked hard, together, to get here, and we still need to work hard moving forward to see this change through. Sticking together would be smart. Sure, there will be competition, but our skills, methods and personalities will work that out; we just need to operate with a solid, fair, friendly approach, and the really talented people will shine. Groups like the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation and the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association are great outlets for networking and forming public comment in response to state regulations.

One of the most wonderful aspects of becoming involved publicly has been the great community we have discovered—the intelligent, thoughtful people we have grown to know and call friends throughout this change. Those relationships are one of the greatest gifts we have been given through this process. A sector of society feels recognized and accepted to a greater degree now, and to that end, they will now contribute more than they ever have before.

Let us not forget the plant. Cannabis: this beautiful, glorious gift from Mother Nature. To truly be successful as a farmer, one must love the plant one is cultivating. We are very excited to be preparing as many unique strains as we legally can, under our medical licensure and recreational law. Our customers will have variety and quality from the day we open. The planning and time (and numbers) put in will be worth finally having the ability to serve the cannabis community of Alaska. And perhaps then, when all of these numbers and dates have passed, I will be able to sleep more soundly.

About the author: Leif Abel co-founded Greatland Ganja, LLC, Alaska’s second licensed marijuana establishment. Abel and his family operate Greatland Ganja on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula where they cultivate 40 cannabis strains, sun-grown using organic methods and ingredients, and grown hydroponically indoors. As Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation and founding board member for the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, he has been a cannabis advocate in Alaska. After passage of Ballot Measure 2, he was appointed to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Marijuana Task Force by the Mayor, where he served out his term as chairman. Abel is a licensed medical grower and a second-generation cannabis cultivator.