One of the last pieces of the puzzle may soon be in place for Juneau's marijuana industry.
Marijuana testing facilities are moving forward in Alaska's capital, welcome news for Juneau's growers and manufacturers, who will see a small part of their risk melt away with the presence of local labs.
"We just saw the need and thought it would be a great venture," said Jessica Dreibelbis, manager of Southeast Alaska Laboratories LLC, which hopes to receive its local conditional-use permit at the end of July.
Under Alaska law, all cannabis must be tested by a state-licensed lab. But so far, only two labs have been approved and they're both in Anchorage.
For growers separated from those labs by sea and air – including all of Southeast – an additional risk comes into play: If businesses ship their product in the mail, via airplane or aboard a ship, they will be breaking federal law.
Whether federal agencies would actually enforce the law is an open question. Alaska's entire industry goes against federal law, the state's Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office director, Cynthia Franklin, has noted.
Still, in Juneau, some concern has arisen, according to City Planner Chrissy Steadman.
"They didn't want to cross into any gray areas," she said of marijuana businesses. When the labs started moving forward, "there was definitely a lot of relief."
Four more state license applications are in the works, two more in Southcentral, and two in Juneau — Southeast Alaska Labs and a brand-new application for Juneau Cannabis Testing Labs. That's compared to nearly 200 cultivation applications.
Dreibelbis' lab is backed by five other Southeast investors. At the end of April, the group got together to see if the lab would pencil out, and moved forward from there, Dreibelbis said.
She's already hired a scientific director – a state requirement for the labs, which requires substantial lab experience — and is in the midst of applying for a state license.
"Everything is just really falling into place nicely," Dreibelbis said.
For Dreibelbis, the concerns about shipping are real. Her lab won't accept any mailed or shipped marijuana samples.
"Negative, no way. There's no way I could test it and sign off on it," Dreibelbis said.
"Unless for some reason the federal law makes an exception. But as of now, I would rather keep my license and do things legally than risk it for a couple samples," she said.
The lab will have a ground courier service, picking up samples from each of its clients.
As testing businesses emerge, owners are adopting different strategies around risks in the fledgling industry. CannTest LLC in Anchorage was the first cannabis business to be approved for a state license. CEO Mark Malagodi told the Marijuana Control Board during a June 9 meeting that he would accept marijuana mailed to the lab.
"I will take this approach … until I am told by the Postal Service that cannabis companies are not allowed to work in the same manner as state drug facilities," Malagodi said in a later email, referencing the Alaska State Crime Lab, which mails samples of controlled substances as part of the forensic process.
For Paul Disdier, who hopes to open Juneau growing facility The Fireweed Factory LLC, the presence of a lab is welcome news.
"It eliminates a lot of the headache, and it's just going to make it much easier to do business because this, so far, has not been an easy business," Disdier said.
Still, he wasn't worried about having to ship his marijuana samples.
"I figured that the U.S. government wouldn't want to waste their time breaking into tiny little packages," Disdier said.
A third lab, Glacier Analytics, is also moving forward, the Juneau Empire reported last week. Co-owner Mitch Knottingham told the Empire that he and his wife had wanted to get into the industry for a while, and setting up a lab made sense for both them and the community.
Glacier Analytics hasn't applied for a city license yet, Steadman said, and it is not listed on the state's website of applications. Attempts to reach the Knottinghams were not successful.
Southeast Alaska Laboratories won't purchase its equipment until it gets approval from the city, Dreibelbis said. Once its Juneau operations are in place, the company will look into opening locations in other Southeast communities, like Sitka and Ketchikan.
The lab will go before the city planning department on July 26.
"We don't anticipate there being a whole lot of concerns with these facilities," Steadman said.