Budding cannabis entrepreneur not who you’d expect

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As the state readies for the implementation of a legal cannabis industry in the next few months, Alaska Public Media is profiling one business along every step of the way.

Photo courtesy of Jane Stinson.
Photo courtesy of Jane Stinson.

Jane Stinson is is a “green entrepreneur” hoping to open a family-run retail shop in Anchorage. But the last few months of tracking regulations, securing a location, and figuring out how to start a new business that banks won’t lend to has not been easy.

Stinson is not exactly who you think of as the face of legal pot in Alaska. She’s in her 60s, tall, with the calming presence of a sturdy aunt.

“I’ve been in Alaska for 36 years, and my background has been in the oil and gas industry, so I had my career there and just recently retired.”

We talked in her car just outside the noisy Anchorage eatery where we met up.

A few years ago Stinson first had the idea to start a commercial cannabis business, but the timing wasn’t ideal: Ballot Measure 2 hadn’t yet been approved by voters, and she wanted to wait until after her retirement. But she had an ideal relationship with her other two business partners.

“We are a family-owned business.”

The dynamic brings its own challenges. Basically: Stinson doesn’t want to get her family in trouble. She sees a very real risk to a person’s career if they’re “out” as being involved in the cannabis businesses. For that reason she is careful about using the names of her business partners during our interview.

The name of their new venture, however, is fair game: Enlighten Alaska.

“We want to ‘enlighten’ Alaska about cannabis.”

Stinson talks about the business in mission-driven terms. She hopes to see crime connected to the black-market dissolve, and wants to be able to provide reliable information about about the potential health benefits of cannabis. That personal passion is a necessary business ingredient at this stage, because the arithmetic of adding time plus money into a variable new industry has not penciled out so far.

Stinson rattled off the biggest challenges she’s dealt with up to this point.

“I can name quite a few. One has been connecting with other cannabis folks,” she explained. “It’s very underground right now, but people are bubbling up, and wanting to start a viable business, so that’s been difficult: To talk with others. But we’ve managed to do that.”

That lingering stigma matters more than you might think. For example, it’s not easy for Stinson to get connected with suppliers. You can’t exactly Google “where to buy wholesale weed in Anchorage” and find useful, legal answers. Likewise, there is the vexing question of real estate.

“Property owners are tied to banks in many instances, and are not able to lease to cannabis businesses because of that. So that’s a big hurdle.”

Stinson has been working for months to secure a lease for a retail space–and after many disappointments she is getting extremely close. But because the landlord might face sanction from his bank if it’s found out part of his income is coming from the sale of a federally controlled substance–Stinson can’t tell me his name.

It’s a hard environment to navigate: Imagine drafting a business plan, but you can’t be certain of the location. The regulations at the state and local level are an on-going process. And you can’t finance through a major lender. It’s has to be cash. That logistical obstacle course is part of what led Enlighten Alaska to scramble it’s original business plan.

“Initially we wanted to have three different licences: It would be a grow licence, a processing licence, and a retail licence. We decided after six to eight months of planning that we were just gonna focus on retail. For now.”

It simply become too cumbersome to figure out regulations, zoning, and financing for three different business models under the same umbrella. So for now, Enlighten is tracking the local rules for commercial retail shops–issues like how far they have to be from schools, the security requirements, and whether on-site consumption will be legal by the time they open their doors, projected to be around late summer or early fall.

This story is one in a series focused on the next phase of the evolving process: Filing for a licence, signing a lease, finding suppliers, and one day, maybe even opening shop in Alaska.