Navigating “The New Normal” Of Legal Marijuana

Samantha Cox has already begun taking custom orders for marijuana pipes and products. Some are discreet vaporizers shaped like pens. Others are elaborate pipes, such as this dragon from China. Some customers have vowed never to shop at Evergreen again. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Samantha Cox has already begun taking custom orders for marijuana pipes and products. Some are discreet vaporizers shaped like pens. Others are elaborate pipes, such as this dragon from China. Some customers have vowed never to shop at Evergreen again. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

As the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Alaska today, the changing laws surrounding pot have already created a ripple effect in Sitka. Law enforcement is ironing out the details and businesses are catering to new clientele, with mixed opinions.

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“Whoa. Oooo…”

When KCAW visited Samantha Cox, she was opening a new shipment. She dipped her hands inside a cardboard box, pushed aside the plastic wrap, and pulled out a dragon. Affixing the glass tail to the body, painted red and yellow in imitation flames, she said, “I had to order this all the way from China.”

Right where the dragon’s scales would be is a mouthpiece from which the future owner will inhale smoke. “It’s a pipe,” Cox said.

Since January 5th, Evergreen Natural Foods has been selling pipes for marijuana use underHerb n’ Legend, a separate business begun by Cox and her partner Mitch McGraw that sells its wares inside the natural foods store. Before Christmas, they were tossing around ideas for how to bring more money into Evergreen.

Cox said that Herb n’ Legend has brought in a whole new clientele to the store, some that are casual users and some heavy users looking for products she doesn’t sell (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Cox said that Herb n’ Legend has brought in a whole new clientele to the store, some that are casual users and some heavy users looking for products she doesn’t sell (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

According to Cox, they wondered, “What can we sell that’s going to bring in customers, that’s going to be unique to the town, and something that people will actually spend their money on while the economy isn’t doing so well?”

And so, they opened a marijuana accessory business. And they’re not the only ones.

Two weeks ago, Tongass Threads Consignment Store also begun to sell marijuana pipes. Owner Kathleen Hill said she too wanted to jump on the business opportunity, but decided to keep the products separate from shoppers. Her pipes are stored in a room behind the consignment shop.

As for Herb n’ Legend at Evergreen, Cox said that customers reactions have mirrored the vote of Sitkans on Ballot Measure 2. 70 percent support the new venture or at least keep quiet about it, while 30 percent are vocally unhappy.

Cox said, “After the first two weeks, I got a lot more of the older, more conservative folks, who — when they found out these weren’t vases — were not so thrilled. And there’s a lot of times where I’ll get passive aggressive comments that I can’t really speak back to. They’ll come in, they’ll be on the phone with someone else, and make the comment, ‘Oh, I’ll never bring my children here again.’”

Since public attitude toward pot is mixed, I was half expecting the new merchandise to be clustered discreetly in the corner, like the porn section tucked away in the back of a video store. But no. The accessories are right behind the counter and proudly arranged. Cox said that was intentional.

“We went to California and looked around at the different head shops there,” Cox said. “While there was some great ones, there were some that smelled bad. They mixed products that could be used for heavy, scary drugs in with their marijuana products. I want a place where people won’t feel ashamed. A place that is clean and respectable. Everybody knows it’s here and everybody knows it’s normal.”

Compared to other states, marijuana has a long history in Alaska. In a 1975 case called Ravin vs. State, Alaska was the first state to declare that adult citizens had a constitutional right to privacy that protected their marijuana use at home.

When Senator Dan Sullivan was in town last Friday, he brought this up before Sitka’s municipal attorney Robin Koutchak. According to Koutchak, “[Sullivan] said, ‘Well it’s always been legal.’ And we said, ‘Yes, well what’s going to change on the 24th is that friends can give each other marijuana.’

What remains illegal, at least until the state starts issuing licenses in May 2016, is selling marijuana and growing it for commercial purposes. Koutchak has experience with this paradox. She brings up the example of alcohol in some rural communities, where you can possess the drink, but not buy or sell it.

“We as prosecutors would laugh about that and call it ‘magical alcohol,’” Koutchak explained. “If it magically appears, you can drink it. If it magically appears, you can consume it. So this could be a real magical time in the middle.”

The other aspect of marijuana that will remain illegal, indefinitely, is consumption in public. Those in violation will be fined up to $100. In this new climate, Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt doesn’t anticipate many tickets will be handed out right away. A lot of enforcement will be left up to the discretion of the officer.

KCAW: Come Tuesday, let’s say someone is on their front porch smoking a joint or in their backyard. Neighbors can smell smoke. How would the police department respond?

Schmitt: I think as long as it’s not bothering anybody, we won’t know about it and we won’t be looking to enforce it. You made it sound like potentially this came from a complaint, from a neighbor saying, “Hey, we can smell it.” And we’d probably go talk to them first and say, ‘Hey can you take it inside? The smell is going over to your neighbors place.’ I think that would be the approach.

Schmitt said the department is more concerned about cracking down on underage use and operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana. After February 24th, he expects things to calm down fairly quickly. “I don’t expect a bunch of people smoking marijuana in the street. I think it’s going to be kind of anti-climactic actually,” said Schmitt.

What is unclear in the year ahead is whether Sitka will allow money to mix with marijuana use. Samantha Cox, of Herb n’ Legend, has no interest in growing or distributing marijuana herself. She said she’s plenty busy keeping up with orders. Sales have been booming in the lead up to February 24th. Her customer base is a mix of casual users and heavy ones, and a handful of current cancer patients.

Cox said, “Several of these patients said they would have loved to have used marijuana during their treatment, but they were so afraid of the judgment and being labeled a stoner, as if that makes some difference on their worth. There’s those people and there’s the folks that are ready for a change.”

And it’s this second kind of change, a shift in the attitude towards marijuana, that Cox says takes more than a law to make possible.