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Glass blower sees clear opportunity in Alaska marijuana legalization

Megan Edge

Update, Nov. 30, 2014: In the wake of Alaska voters approving marijuana legalization earlier this month, Girdwood glass blower Darby Andrews is preparing for his first business trip to Denver. Andrews, who makes pipes that are commonly used for smoking marijuana, said he will be discussing the marijuana industry and future business plans.

Andrews would not state the specifics of his business ideas, as "they are not concrete yet," he said. He said he does hope to keep glass blowing a part of his future business, but he hopes to keep it more as a hobby.

"It is possible, I am going to like to expand that (glass blowing) side but I could foresee a different option," Andrews said in a recent phone interview. "The glass blowing is my play time. I want to keep it fun. I see people who take their glass into the business and it is like taking your passion and squashing it until it is not fun anymore."

He said he hopes to be able to keep his business in Girdwood, where he can create more year-round jobs for a community filled with seasonal employment.  

Andrews plans on discussing the struggles of Denver's marijuana legalization with business owners in the area. He will head to Colorado on Dec. 10.

Andrews said he's had mixed feelings about marijuana legalization in Alaska since it made its way onto the November ballot, but said he hopes the legislation will clear up the "grey area" of marijuana law. He added that he was happy that medical marijuana users won't "have to use the black market to get weed."

Darby also expressed frustration with Anchorage, 45 miles away, which is debating opting out of the commercial aspects of legal marijuana.

"It is ridiculous," Darby said. "We don't even know what the law will really look like yet. It is just people getting ahead of themselves, but that is OK, they just showed their hand."

Original Story, March 2014: Tucked away in the Alaska ski town of Girdwood is a little beige shack on a quaint piece of property, not far from the base of Alyeska Resort. Darby Andrews, 44, stood on the stairs leading into the shack on a unusually sunny and warm late winter day with his black cat, Magnet, sitting next to him. When the duo walked back inside they entered an elaborate glass blowing studio, home to DRB Thunderfoot Art Glass, the business Andrews runs to make and sell everything from wine glasses and Christmas ornaments to his most-sold item: vibrant, colorful glass pipes which are commonly used for smoking marijuana.

Most of his business comes from personal requests, but occasionally he sells his art to head shops, like Planet X in Anchorage. In a typical month he makes 30 to 40 pipes, but if he is getting ready to sell them to a shop or preparing for a festival, he's creating about 100 pipes a month. Some go for just a couple of dollars, while others have $1,000 price tags.

"I can make a $700 piece of art, but it will just sit on my shelf while I sell four or five of these," said Andrews, pointing at a small box of smoking utensils. "You kind of go where the market is." And right now, he said the market is with marijuana. "Sometimes I can't keep up with the orders."

Andrews gets requests from all over the United States, and not just from states like Colorado and Washington, which have already legalized weed for recreational purposes. With several other states making moves to follow Colorado and Washington's lead, colorful and elaborate glass pipes are becoming more popular -- and more mainstream.

His business could change significantly in the next year. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has signed off on a voter initiative to legalize, tax, and regulate the production and use of recreational marijuana. The measure will be on the primary ballot in August.

Alaska's 'Don't ask, don't tell,' attitude

"I think a lot of stigma against marijuana has already gone away as (legalization) makes its way around the country," said Andrews, adding that getting high isn't at all like the 1936 film "Reefer Madness," which depicted the perceived ills of marijuana use in dramatic, over-the-top ways. "I mean, you will always have people that don't agree with it, but it's like alcohol: there is a time and a place for it. I mean, too much recreation makes it so nothing gets done, but the same would happen if you drank all day."

Andrews, a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said Alaska's attitude toward toking up is very similar to a saying from his military days: "Don't ask, don't tell."

"You look at people and you can't tell," said Andrews, dressed in Carhartts, a tie-dye shirt and fleece-lined black Crocs. "There are so many people out there that do partake that would never tell anyone because it could ruin their career or they would lose friends. They tell, like, one person, and that is it."

But the benefits of taking a couple of hits are "undeniable," he said. "I smoke, occasionally. Mostly for medicinal reasons." 

In 1992, when the Anchorage native was discharged from the Army, he had several medical issues. In his own words, he "got pretty tore up in the Army." The Veterans Administration prescribed him "bottles" of medication, he said.

"I like being able to sit down and have a puff and just relax. The VA wants to prescribe tons of drugs, but I only eat them when I need them. I think there are healthier alternatives. The problem is is the more you eat, the more you will need," he said.

DRB Thunderfoot Art Glass

When Andrews returned from war in the early 1990s, he had a blood clot in his leg. He said he had to find work that he could take breaks from when it was convenient, so he started looking into the arts. He played with leather and hemp before one day finding his friend's 7-year-old daughter playing with a small torch, melting glass.

"I saw it and I was like, 'Ooh, me next!'" he recalled. That day he made two glass beads, which he sold to a traveler at a bar that night. He was hooked; he went back to his friend's the next day.

By 1995 he was traveling around the Last Frontier, peddling his products at festivals around the state. He bought a little black bus, which he recently sold.

Eventually he had to change his business model; these days, he only sells his goods at the annual Forest Fair in Girdwood and last year, for the first time, he sold glassware at the Salmonstock music festival in Ninilchik.

"The drugs of choice changed," Andrews said. "It wasn't fun, (like) 'Ha ha, welcome to my fire pit. How you guys doing tonight?' It was up in your face, 'Who do you know here? What do you want?' We kind of dropped the festivals, which hurt because that was always a fun way to make money. There was pretty much one every weekend."

Andrews also started selling to shops, which he said "get greedy."

"The stores will talk you down, then you walk in and they've marked your shit up 150 percent," he said.

Clear possibilities

The possibilities for Andrews' business seem vast if marijuana is legalized. "The mind just goes wild with ideas," he said, adding that he could open a glass-blowing shop and use Alaska's "closet blowers" and his friends to stock the shelves. He's also thought about turning the entryway of his shed-turned-workshop into a little waiting area with seats and display cases.

And should dispensaries open up with the legalization of marijuana, he said the people approaching him will likely be more educated on what implements to smoke out of. "Smoking from glass is one of the cleanest ways to smoke," he said. "It's easy to clean, and the artwork in it is amazing."

"There has always been a fascination with glass," he said. "It is one of those last mysteries of life. People are still dumbfounded by it. It is one of those things a lot of people have never seen done. Now, the industry is just blowing up."

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