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These people want to show Alaska tourists the marijuana industry

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: August 24, 2016
  • Published July 3, 2016

Keith Crocker and Mitchell Knottingham co-own Juneau Cannabis Tours, a company that wants to provide tours of cultivation and manufacturing facilities, as well as retail stores, in Juneau. (Brian Wallace / Brian Wallace Photography)

To Keith Crocker, it's clear marijuana could be the logical next step in pushing Juneau's tourism industry to a higher level.

That's why he and business partner Mitchell Knottingham created Juneau Cannabis Tours.

Their idea — to give tours of Alaska's new marijuana industry in action — is a glimpse into a potential new piece of the state's visitor economy.

Some Alaskans are mulling the idea of starting up marijuana tourism companies, while others already have business licenses, but all seem to be biding their time until more commercial marijuana licenses are approved later this year.

Going on marijuana tours in Denver gave Crocker and Knottingham insight into the sort of company they wanted to build in Alaska.

Juneau Cannabis Tours' website features a photo of lush, green mountains and encourages visitors to "live the Alaska high life."

Crocker said once the state's commercial pot industry is up and running, the company hopes to take people to see things like a cultivation facility, edibles manufacturing facility and marijuana retail shop — an "overview of what's going on with the whole industry" — possibly combined with food and drink tours.

"I know there's a huge interest in it," said Crocker, adding that he's already had inquiries from about 60 people. "With the tourism that comes to Juneau, I know there's going to be a huge demand."

Tours with his company might cost around $125 — around the price he paid on his visits to Colorado.

Waiting and watching

A boom in marijuana tourism could potentially be significant, especially if next year — when commercial marijuana businesses should be up and running for the summer — is as much of a banner year for tourism as 2016 is predicted to be.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development expects the state's leisure and hospitality sector (bars, restaurants, hotels and more) to add 300 more jobs this year, after gaining 700 last year. Overall, that industry employed a monthly average of 34,900 people in 2015.

From October 2014 through September 2015, Alaska had 2 million visitors, nearly three times the state's population, and this year about 1 million are expected to take in the Great Land on cruise ships. People are trying to figure out how to connect legal pot with those visitors.

Crocker said his company is "not 100 percent operating," because he's still waiting for the state to go through the entire process of approving marijuana licenses. That's the case for some other entrepreneurs, too.

Juneau Cannabis Tours already has an operating manager and tour guides in place, but things are "on the back burner" until September, he said, when the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office is expected to approve the first retail store and manufacturing facility licenses.

Last year, Sherry Corrington's tour business Skagway Private Tours added a new component to its usual outdoorsy adventures: Offering to shuttle people around town after they toured a marijuana grow.  

"It sounded like an amazing end of the day," Corrington said, "after a long drive up into the Yukon, talking about every aspect of life in Alaska, to have a tour where I was picking up people after a garden experience and driving them around (Skagway) for an hour."

She said she never sold a tour, though, and she stopped offering that service when the company that was actually doing the touring, Coyote & Toad's Garden, applied for a state license to become a cultivator and suspended its tours.

"We're not doing that anymore," said Steven "Coop" Briody, one of the owners of Coyote & Toad's. "But maybe in the future."

A company called Alaska Cannabis Tours is also registered with the state, and appears to be based in Girdwood, according to state records. But the owner couldn't be reached for this story, and doesn't appear to have a website.

Cruise ships

At least one major cruise ship operator, Holland America Group, hasn't yet decided how it will handle communications with passengers about marijuana still being illegal on board.

"Mostly in Southeast, not as much in Anchorage, if you've got a job in downtown Juneau or Ketchikan, you are marketing to our customers, period," said Ralph Samuels, vice president of community and government relations for cruise line company Holland America Group. "It's a little different than a shop in downtown Anchorage. It's a different story. The ship is our biggest concern."

Washington state voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, but that hasn't been an issue for Holland America there, Samuels said. That's because in Seattle, businesses generally aren't targeting solely cruise ship passengers with their marketing, the way they are in so many communities in Southeast Alaska, he said.

This summer's tourism season in Southeast Alaska isn't causing much concern for the cruise industry, but Samuels said it will be something to think about more next year, after marijuana businesses are approved.

"I think it's fairly new for everybody. We're just kind of feeling our way through it," said John Binkley, president of the Cruise Lines International Association Alaska. "I think there's generally a consensus that passengers need to be notified when they purchase marijuana or marijuana products, that it's not allowed back on board the ships."

A place to smoke

But even if more and more tourists flood the state, there might not be many options for where they can legally smoke marijuana, if that's what they're after.

Under state regulations, smoking marijuana in public isn't allowed, except for licensed retail marijuana shops that might eventually have a designated spot for on-site consumption. Also under state rule, hotels are considered private buildings, where the owners are allowed to make the decision about what is and isn't allowed. It gets more complicated in a town with a smoking ban.

"There's no place, right now, where you could publicly consume marijuana," said Cynthia Franklin, director of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.

Bruce Schulte, chair of the new Alaska Marijuana Industry Association and also a member of Alaska's Marijuana Control Board, said cruise ship tourism, specifically in Southeast, "really speaks to the need" for on-site consumption locations.

Mila Cosgrove, deputy city manager of Juneau, said even though the city has a smoking ban, hotels could designate smoking rooms.

The state also has some marijuana social clubs, where people pay a fee for a membership and can go to share and smoke marijuana (though they can't purchase any). But these clubs aren't common in Alaska, and the Alaska Journal of Commerce reported earlier this year  they operate in an unclear legal area

Theresa Collins, co-owner of Pot Luck Events marijuana club in Anchorage, said her business has seen patrons from 29 different states, 11 different countries and 49 different towns in Alaska.

"It definitely brings in out-of-towners that are looking for a place to consume," she said.

People in search of pot-friendly lodging can also browse the website Bud and Breakfast, which lists "cannabis friendly accommodations worldwide," including in Alaska. Some spots listed there even offer weed to guests.

In Anchorage's Bootlegger Cove neighborhood, Cecelia Donelson is considering opening a cannabis-friendly bed and breakfast in her own home, but nothing is certain yet. She wouldn't be selling or growing pot.

"I'm kind of waiting for it to get going," Donelson said. "It's a little early."

Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, has heard anecdotally of some "green tours" that might eventually take shape in Alaska. But like many other aspects of the marijuana tourism business, most of it is still up in the air.

ATIA is closely watching different regions of the state handle new marijuana regulations — the Matanuska-Susitna Borough currently has a moratorium on marijuana businesses, for example. Leonard said the association is planning a session for its October convention to educate businesses on what they need to know, in terms of the law, when it comes to marijuana tourism.

Some of that might include reminders of the basics, like the fact people under age 21 aren't allowed to smoke pot in Alaska and it's illegal to use marijuana before driving.

"We want to promote good education for our businesses and visitors," Leonard said. "There will be basic things like that. As it becomes legal, we just want to remind people."

The ATIA is also doing research on marketing for companies that might want to provide marijuana tours. Especially online, marketing for marijuana businesses can be tricky because it bound to cross state lines into places where marijuana is still illegal.

Crocker, of Juneau Cannabis Tours, said it's a given tourists will be buying and smoking marijuana in Alaska. It's just a matter of figuring out where they'll do it.

When he and his business partner went to Denver to check out the tours there, he was surprised by the "massive amount of diversity" of people who were interested.

"It was 65-year-old business men from Connecticut, (an) older woman from Alabama, and then some guys from L.A. who look like they smoke weed every day," he said. "I just thought the cannabis industry was pretty intriguing. There's a lot of potential there."

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