Boulder on the inside: a pot lawyer grows up fast

Jana Weltzin at her midtown Anchorage office. (Photo: Zahariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

It’s a tricky time for commercial cannabis in Alaska. Stores around the state are beginning to open, but without enough product available to keep shelves stocked for more than a few hours. The state’s largest market, Anchorage, is seeing delays for businesses because of complicated zoning regulations. And there are concerns that a Justice Department under Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) may reverse tolerant federal guidelines that have let state’s develop marijuana industries.

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At the center of all this is an emerging legal niche: pot lawyers.

On the wall of her midtown office, Jana Weltzin showed off two framed abstract pictures made by her high school best friend.

“It’s actually wax,” Weltzin said of one titled ‘Breathe in and Out.’ “I’m not supposed to touch, but I touch it.”

Weltzin grew up in Fairbanks, but went to college out of state. She graduated from Arizona State University’s law school in 2012, and started practicing in Phoenix. After Alaskans voted in favor of a recreational cannabis industry in 2014, she saw an opportunity.

“Marijuana law is something that’s is so exciting and interesting to me because we’re never going to see something like this happen again in my life time,” Weltzin said. “We’re never going to see an industry come up that’s never existed before.”

Welzin is only 30 years old, young for a lawyer who has already had a large role shaping the regulations for a brand new business sector. If she’d been born 15 years earlier, she’d probably be counseling tech start-ups in Silicon Valley. Instead, her cannabis clients stretch from Aniak along the Kuskokwim to Kasilof on the Railbelt, with a few in the Lower 48, as well.

According to Weltzin, most of her clients are mom-and-pop operations, in no small part because that’s who’s willing to take the risk in commercial pot’s murky legal landscape.

“The cannabis industry, throughout the states that have legalized, has been largely born from small entrepreneurial startups,” Weltzin said. “The risk keeps out the big boys.”

Weltzin herself took a risk. Without specifying how much money she’s now making, she said the business is profitable, and that she’s doing better than when she collected a six-figure salary as an assistant attorney at a large corporate firm.

Before moving back to Alaska, Weltzin worked at the Rose Law Group in Arizona. There she got experience in the state’s medicinal marijuana industry, an area of the law which happens to involve a lot of rules over building and development.

“Just like (Anchorage), there’s a whole land-use component to the cannabis market there, where you have to get special use permits, there’s requirements for buffers, there’s multiple city hearings and public hearings,” Weltzin explained. “Same kind of process we’re going through here.”

Weltzin’s been a vocal presence at the state level in guiding legislation through Juneau, as well as giving input on the emerging regulations from the Marijuana Control Board as they’ve been drafted and adopted. She’s also willingly been sucked into much more local battles in Anchorage over Assembly ordinances and zoning codes. The mayor’s office is seeking to appoint her to a vacant seat on the city’s platting board, one of the most important yet dull local bodies governing land use.

“I just want to be more engaged in the public process, and able to be more of a boulder on the inside and not so much of a pebble on the outside,” Weltzin said of her interest in the platting seat.

The former chair of the Marijuana Control Board, Bruce Schulte, wrote in an email that Weltzin was the “most credible legal counsel in the state” when it came to setting up new pot businesses. He added that the pool is still quite small in Alaska, with other pot attorneys more focused on criminal defense areas of the law.

Like many of her Anchorage clients, Weltzin is frustrated that the city’s building code is proving to be such a stumbling block for new businesses — even if it’s a snag she financially benefits from. Still, Weltzin’s impressed by the speed with which the legal industry has come into existence, and the unique victories that have been won in Alaska for measures like on-site consumption.

“This is fun,” Weltzin said. “I mean, this is way fun. This is like probably the most exciting, fun, fulfilling two years that I’ve had, period.”

For now, Weltzin’s attention is firmly fixed on cannabis laws, which she sees as a “pillar of economic development” that needs to be well implemented from the start.

Entrenched in a new industry facing an uncertain future in the Last Frontier, Weltzin is a bit of a pioneer, staking a claim that could be either a bonanza or a bust.