In the last few weeks, as commercial marijuana inches closer to a reality across Alaska, a lot of people are asking: why doesn’t Anchorage have a pot shop yet?
After store openings in Fairbanks, Juneau and Valdez, Anchorage is still weeks away from having an open retailer.
Jane Stinson is one of the owners of Enlighten Alaska, a business trying to open on a busy corner in the Spenard neighborhood. She showed off a brightly painted space with shelving and half-finished construction projects.
“This room is where we’ll be selling most of our marijuana products, in fact all of them,” Stinson said.
The store was on track to open any week now. But over the Thanksgiving holiday it was robbed.
“Everything that had a plug was gone, which was mostly construction equipment,” Stinson said.
The thieves even stole a broom. Stinson said the theft set them back about five days and $5,000, pushing them even further past their opening deadline. A main reason for the delay in opening is the difficulty it had getting the older building it rents up to par with the city’s elaborate building codes.
“We have to come up to compliance, and it’s costing a lot of money to make sure that we have enough parking, snow removal, gates around our dumpsters and those kinds of things,” Stinson said.
Anchorage revised it’s building code in 2013, implementing the so-called “new Title 21.” It requires that when a property like this goes through what’s known as a “change of use,” becoming, for example, a legal weed store, it has to be physically improved in the process. That means ironing out many of the old design features that are out-of-date and no longer acceptable in the building code.
To demonstrate, Stinson showed off the tiny parking-lot out her back door.
“The problem is is that we have parking for maybe two cars here,” Stinson said, and explained she’s working on a parking arrangement with neighboring businesses to accommodate the issue.
Right now, getting these kind of building features up to modern standards is the biggest reasons why Anchorage retail shops are weeks behind their counterparts elsewhere in the state.
Dick Traini is a long-serving member of the Anchorage Assembly, who explained these additional prerequisites are “just the cost of doing business” after a recent meeting on marijuana business licenses at the Planning and Zoning Department.
“People in the industry, no matter what you do, are going to say you’re trying to be obstructionist,” Traini said.
Since the state-wide passage of Ballot Measure 2 in 2014, Traini has led the charge adding local regulatory steps for would-be pot businesses. Measure that do not exist elsewhere — or if they do, not as robustly.
“Because we’re the largest urban area in Alaska. The dynamics that come with an urban area requires us to be a little more precise than say Fairbanks, or Valdez or any other place.”
The key mechanism for giving Anchorage officials more control over the marijuana industry is enforcing the Title 21 building code through a land-use permit, which some say is just as complicated and dense as the state license application.
Traini insists the Assembly is not trying to block marijuana businesses, but in keeping with the will of voters is treating pot like alcohol.
For Traini, that means not replicating what he sees as the mistakes of the alcohol industry — a perennial source of problems for the Assembly. It comes up in the form of bar break violence, crime, and a perceived imbalance of influence stemming from the state having more control over alcohol licensing than local governments.
“If we have a problem, we’re the ones that have to deal with it,” Traini said. “The state’s not gonna send their code-enforcement officers to deal with a bad licensee or a problem. They’re gonna say ‘we really can’t deal with that.’ It needs to be done here locally. It needs to be a code enforcement issue that’s handled by the citizens of this town.”
Traini cites the recent example of a business that was set to officially open, until it was claimed the owner was giving away small amounts of marijuana on the premise. The state took no punitive action after reviewing the evidence, but the Assembly opted to delay the business’s final inspections.
The issue is exacerbated by what properties are actually available to new cannabis businesses.
Erika McConnell is the city’s marijuana coordinator, and during an interview at her office explained that since so many marijuana businesses are moving into older properties there is more work that has to be done to bring them up to code.
“They can’t get finances from banks, can’t get investments from out of state from larger companies, (so) they presumably don’t have very much capital available to them,” McConnell said. “So they have to look for these properties that are older, or vacant or less well-kept-up.”
McConnell also pointed out that states like Colorado and Washington that have implemented commercial cannabis already had a medical marijuana industry up and running. There were buildings, businesses, capital, and regulations that could be adapted for the recreational industry. Alaska didn’t have that. Here, the legal pot industry is starting from scratch.
Of the handful of retail shops closest to opening in the municipality, two of them, Alaska Fireweed and Dankorage, say they’ll be ready later this month — with the caveat, though, that there might not be enough product to keep on the shelves for more than a few hours. Because even with just a few stores open in Alaska, demand, so far, is outpacing supply.