VALDEZ — Nearly two years after Alaskans voted to legalize commercial cannabis, the first retail marijuana store opened to the public Saturday.
Herbal Outfitters opened its doors at noon, on a rainy day in this coastal community.
"I've been waiting 46 years for this to open!" said Michael Holcombe, 63, a Valdez resident.
Holcombe was the store's first customer, surrounded by media, while the rest of the customers waited outside. He perused the 10 strains available, smelling the buds and asking about products on the shelves.
He walked out with five different strains: 2 grams of G-13 crossed with Cheese, 1 gram of Jack the Ripper, 1 gram of Bubba Kush, 1 gram of Blue Dream and 2 grams of Deep Sleep, for $145.65.
Holcombe is retired, and said he didn't have any big plans after he makes his purchase.
"I'll probably just go on my day, go home and smoke a bowl later," Holcombe said.
Each strain was put in a small plastic bag, then in an opaque black container, which was labeled, and placed in a brown paper bag.
After making his historic purchase, Holcombe walked outside the front door and shouted, "First bag!"
The crowd cheered.
Herbal Outfitters had never planned to be first to open, owner Rick Ballow said, but he and his wife just "kept punching at the paperwork," and things fell into place.
"I really feel honored to be the first cannabis shop open in Alaska," Ballow said.
Ballow and his wife were living in Arizona when commercial marijuana was legalized in Alaska in 2014. He knew heading into that election that he wanted to return to Valdez to open a cannabis shop — and he even knew the exact building he wanted to buy. They had to gut the interior, working every day for months, to get to this point, he said.
His wife and daughter came up with the store's name, Ballow said. And as an avid hunter, Ballow knew from the start that he wanted the logo to include moose antlers. "It's about as Alaskan as you can possibly get," he said.
The store has strains available from two growers — Greatland Ganja and Green Rush Gardens LLC, both from the Kenai Peninsula. One gram of Greatland Ganja's bud is $21.95; Green Rush is $17.95, general manager Derek Morris said.
Morris' favorite strain? Blue Dream from Green Rush. "It tastes as good as it smells," he said, opening the jar full of buds.
Sales of the strain were limited to 1 gram to make sure they didn't run out, Morris said.
At 9:30 a.m., three soon-to-be customers lingered outside the shop.
By 10 a.m., about a dozen people had gathered outside the store, and then that number doubled an hour later. Morris crisscrossed in and outside with his cellphone to his ear while people smoked cigarettes and chatted in the rain.
By 11:40 a.m., the crowd outside Herbal Outfitters had grown to about 45 people of all ages.
"It's historic," said Verna Ward, who lives in Valdez, and said she was two years older than the state of Alaska (meaning she was born in 1957).
Hannah Frost and her husband had driven six hours from Anchorage on Friday night to be part of the opening day. "We didn't have anything else to do this weekend and thought it would be fun," Frost said.
Frost said they were hoping to buy 1 or 2 grams of a strain that helps with anxiety — but when they reached the register, that quickly changed.
"We didn't buy 1 or 2 grams," Frost laughed, her husband holding a bag with more than 7 grams and five different strains, costing $167.75.
Frost said they will wait until they return to Anchorage to smoke.
Around 1 p.m., an hour after opening for business, Herbal Outfitters still had a line of customers out the door. Inside, the mood was upbeat as customers cycled through, some taking their time, others moving through quickly.
At the front door, budtender Suzanne Hickman was checking IDs. "We are all so excited we forget to breathe," Hickman said.
Next door, at Weathered Anchor Resale and Consignment, owner Christy Franklin spoke out against the shop. "For me myself, a lot of it is the location," Franklin said. The store sits in the middle of town, near the library, school dormitories, a park and other areas that teenagers and children frequent, she said.
While morally opposed to the use of drugs and alcohol, Franklin still said she has "a lot of respect for the business and what they do."
In May 2017, the city of Valdez will vote whether to ban commercial marijuana.
When asked if he was concerned about the ban, Herbal Outfitters owner Ballow said only that "I respect everybody's thoughts."
More marijuana stores in Alaska plan to open soon. Frozen Budz in Fairbanks plans to open Monday, co-owner Destiny Neade wrote in an email, and Pakalolo Supply Co. in Fairbanks opens Wednesday. Arctic Herbery in Anchorage, which will likely be the first shop in Alaska's largest city, hopes to open in early November, according to owner Bryant Thorp.
Alaskans voted to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana on Nov. 4, 2014. The measure went into effect in February 2015, which started the state's nine-month countdown for crafting rules around the industry.
State regulations were approved by the Marijuana Control Board at its November 2015 meeting. In June, the board began approving marijuana licenses. Now, growers have reaped their first harvests, the state's first cannabis testing lab is open, and marijuana retail stores are preparing to open across the state.