WASILLA — Some Alaskans are getting a close-up look — or smell — at the state's marijuana trade as industrial-sized grows begin popping up by their homes.
Pot farms in Anchorage, Willow and Fairbanks have received state warnings after complaints of odiferous air pollution that can violate state safeguards created to control the pungent aroma of flowering cannabis buds.
Alaskans voted in 2014 to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults. Retail stores began opening last year. So did commercial cultivation operations.
As of late August, there were more than 70 commercial pot cultivators operating from Ketchikan to Fairbanks, about 50 of them larger grows covering at least 500 square feet.
Alaska's marijuana laws for cultivation include requirements for security systems, safety lighting and odor control to corral the skunky smell emitted by oils in flowering marijuana plants. State law says a marijuana cultivation facility must ensure it "does not emit an odor that is detectable by the public from outside" except as allowed by local conditional-use permits.
That's easy for many growers on big properties away from homes. But already, at least three more centrally located big grows have run into trouble with the neighbors.
Sitting on his lawn and eating barbecue is ruined by a smell like "having my head up a skunk's butt," Two Rivers resident Ole Christianson told the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly during a hearing Aug. 24 about whether to renew the license of a large grow operation near Chena Hot Springs Road.
Another resident said the odor from the four greenhouses operated by a company called Elevated Innovations gave her family sore throats and painful headaches. The resident, Jacqueline Bock, said she wondered what chemicals are in the airborne odors.
"So, yeah, this is a big issue," Bock said. "I feel that even if one person is affected like I'm getting affected, it shouldn't be allowed."
Karen Bloom, Fairbanks president of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, said some members of the Assembly are "critical of this industry and doing everything they can to undermine it," in apparent reference to the two Assembly sponsors of the renewal opposition proposal.
"There can be odor," Bloom said. "Getting sick over a plant's odor — I honestly have never heard of such a thing."
The Assembly declined to oppose the license renewal.
But the state's Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office issued an advisory to Elevated Innovations, according to Director Erika McConnell. The local enforcer smelled marijuana, McConnell said.
The advisory is an informal warning that doesn't warrant action from the state officials like a violation notice does, she said.
Elevated Innovations owner Cristopher Konopka told the Assembly he only learned of a problem when the state enforcement officer contacted him. Supporters said the inspector ultimately found the grow in compliance.
Konopka did not return calls for more information.
Two South Anchorage companies received state violation notices after the marijuana office got "multiple odor complaints" from neighbors, McConnell said.
Those companies, both located on Cinnabar Loop not far from homes on Lake Otis Parkway, are Danish Gardens and Great Northern Cannabis.
Danish Gardens is one of the largest growers in the state at 20,000 square feet — roughly the size of half a football field.
The company resolved the odor issue by boosting the number of carbon filters in its ventilation system, said owner Dane Wyrick. He blamed part of the problem on a city requirement that he increase air passing through the structure, originally designed with a closed-loop system.
Wyrick said it's not fair that growers fall under such strict standards when aviation, beer brewing and coffee roasting emit strong odors across a wide area.
"It's in our best interest not to alert the world to everything we're doing but how far do we go?" he said. "Things smell."
Meanwhile, Great Northern CEO Steve Brashear said his company didn't realize engineers had installed a mix of filters in the nearly $500,000 ventilation and climate control system that's supposed to neutralize odors at the 5,000-square-foot growing facility.
Great Northern made sure the system operates on more effective carbon filters, Brashear said. The company also vents through the roof rather than out the sides of the facility.
It takes a significant investment to become a successful commercial marijuana entrepreneur, he said. "In order to be a successful business in this industry, you have to take the regulatory compliance seriously. We do."
Another grow operation that's attracting unwanted attention is outdoors, where it's harder to filter smells.
Residents in one Willow neighborhood say The Farm, a large outdoor growing operation next to the Parks Highway at Mile 64, emits such a strong odor that they're sometimes driven indoors during chores and other outdoor activities.
Several residents filed complaints about the operation with the Alaska Marijuana Control Board. None wanted to be quoted, but in their emailed complaints to the state, provided as public records, they said the odor from the plants was strong enough to make eyes and noses burn.
"We are starting to have some very strong odors drifting thru our neighborhood from their operation. It can be very bad when driving by," one resident wrote. "I thought I had heard that proper odor control prevented this. Can you please look into this for us?"
The state issued an advisory to The Farm last month, according to McConnell. One resident emailed last week to say the smell persisted despite the installation of new filtration systems.
The Farm is growing marijuana in outdoor hoop houses, which makes it tricky to control odor with fans or filters the way greenhouses or warehouses do, according to Alex Strawn, the borough's development services manager.
The farm's manager and attorney say a long-term solution is in the works and the smell should dissipate with harvest underway.
Jana Weltzin, an attorney specializing in marijuana companies who represents The Farm, said it's not fair that marijuana growers are held to different standards than other farmers.
But ideally, companies don't locate grow operations in neighborhoods in the first place, Weltzin said.
"If it's a tightly residential neighborhood … it might not be the smartest idea in the world to put a grow there," she said.