While Alaska's commercial marijuana market slowly forges ahead, some residents aren't waiting for retail businesses to surface and are instead providing cannabis to the severely ill and veterans, all free of charge.
Alaska Green Angels is one of these groups that has been giving away free cannabis for the past year. It was started as reaction to what the group feels is a medical marijuana system that has failed its patients -- although the state disagrees.
On a Tuesday afternoon in December, a dozen of the group's members gathered at a storefront in Anchorage. A seemingly disparate group, they ranged in ages and appearance. One young woman wore a neatly tied ponytail; another man with tattoos on his neck huddled in a camo jacket; an older woman in jeans stood the entire meeting.
Their stories were similarly disparate. Some were military veterans battling PTSD. One woman had shattered her pelvis and broken her back. Another man had Crohn's disease and recently had a section of his intestine removed; another woman had a spinal infection.
The common thread between their stories was pain, and the treatment of their pain with cannabis.
Three of the group's founders -- Don "DC" McKenzie, Adele Tara, and Darby Andrews -- were among the group at the Tuesday get-together. The fourth co-founder, Angel Kirstene, was unable to attend.
A simple premise
Alaska voted to commercialize recreational marijuana use in 2014.
In the months following the legalization vote, businesses popped up claiming to give away marijuana. They asked people to make a "donation" for the product, essentially swapping the word "buy" with "donate." Three of those businesses are today facing felony drug charges.
Alaska Green Angels was created partially in response to what McKenzie called "predatory" practices against medical marijuana users.
"We strongly felt that there were individuals out there kind of acting with a real mercenary attitude toward the sickest people," McKenzie said. "It all just kind of coalesced … to answer this need."
The Green Angels started with a Facebook group created by McKenzie last winter.
The premise is simple. Post a need for cannabis and one of the members with marijuana will respond.
Soon, the group's numbers ballooned. While they used to know every member, "those days are long passed," Tara said.
Now, the group's members are communicating with each other independently of the founders, Tara said.
Such was the case with Dakota Davis. Davis received his first free cannabis from a stranger who responded to his post.
Davis, 26, said that he had avoided marijuana after being honorably discharged from the Navy due to Crohn's disease. He had never really used cannabis and didn't like the idea of getting marijuana from "this black market thing."
Through the advice of a business professor, he got connected with the Alaska Green Angels. "These guys have been helping me out tremendously," Davis said.
He says he uses cannabis to alleviate nausea brought on by chemotherapy he undergoes for Crohn's. He also uses it in place of opiates, which he said negatively affect his mood.
"It's not a cure-all," Davis said, but "it really improves my quality of life."
The group insists their cannabis products are always free of charge. Under state law, one can legally give 1 ounce of marijuana to another person over the age of 21, though it remains a crime under federal law.
"We all agree that if anyone ever accepted any type of 'donation'," Tara said, miming quotation marks with her fingers, "we would immediately report them to the authorities."
About 10 people growing cannabis contribute to the group, Andrews said. Others provide the equipment or raw materials for edibles.
With the group growing larger, they are in a constant search for additional cannabis. McKenzie said they use their own resources and are "slowly going broke" with the endeavor.
Cannabis for veterans
Alaska Green Angels isn't the only group providing cannabis products for free in the state. The Alaska Veterans Cannabis Relief Organization, based in the Mat-Su Valley, also gives out cannabis products to veterans.
Keenan Williams, the group's president, said it began as a chapter of the national group Weed For Warriors Project, and has since branched out into its own organization.
Nationally, the Weed for Warriors group is seeking to move away from a reliance on prescription drugs, what Williams called "the VA's answer to everything."
The national group pulls from reports that support the idea of marijuana as an opiate replacement, such as the 2014 study that found that in states where medical marijuana is legalized, opioid overdose fatalities were found to be 25 percent lower than in states where it wasn't legalized.
Like the Green Angels, William's group relies on donations from Alaskans' own personal stash.
"We do not charge, will not charge, and do not accept any compensation at all. Zero," Williams said.
Williams says they've donated to a couple hundred veterans since the group was started in May. The group also helps vets set up their own home growing operation.
A third group, CannaCare, is also based in the Mat-Su valley and serves veterans. CannaCare works "hand in hand" with Williams, he said. CannaCare's founder, Rachel Lake, said the group hands out care packages once a month. All three groups say they also give out things like hygiene products, warm clothing and coffee cards.
With their donations, the Green Angels believe that they are filling a gap that the state created when it legalized medicinal marijuana years ago.
"'I pray that they never have to rely on it'
In 1998, Alaska became one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana. But, the state's system didn't provide for a legal means to procure cannabis -- people were allowed to grow and possess marijuana, but the state did not specify how a person would legally come across these plants, as distribution was still illegal, unlike many of the other states that provided for dispensaries.
After Alaska legalized marijuana, people were allowed to legally give away plants, or up to an ounce of marijuana. Medical marijuana cardholders still have no easy means to get cannabis if they are not connected to a source. The sale of cannabis, outside of the state's licensed system, is still illegal.
As such, there's little incentive to get a medical marijuana card. As of Dec. 22, there were 1,003 medical marijuana cardholders registered with the state, according to David Gibson, research analyst with the Department of Health and Vital Statistics.
The Green Angels want to fill in that gap. It also wants better access for patients -- tax break for cardholders and medical marijuana doctors who are "legitimate," instead of the "crackpots" in the state now, Andrews said. They also say there is a stigma for medical marijuana users.
"People that don't believe that there's a medical benefit to (cannabis), I pray that they never have to rely on it for a medical need ... But I do wish they would open their eyes and have a little empathy and sympathy," Andrews said.
With the state's focus on commercial, recreational marijuana, Tara feels like she has personally failed. She wondered aloud whether the group should have staged demonstrations to bring the public eye to the issue of medical access, while the regulations were being written.
The state doesn't see it that way. Regulators have said repeatedly they do not support a separate medical marijuana system.
Both Colorado and Washington have struggled to integrate their already-existing medical marijuana systems with the recreational marijuana businesses. Drawing on those states' experience, Alaska regulators decided two business models would be more problematic than one.
Marijuana Control Board chair Bruce Schulte said that he personally supports the idea of a tax break for medical patients, but added, "there's no way we can get there," at least until 2017, he said.
By law, Alaska's voter initiative cannot be substantially changed for the first two years. A medical tax break would amount to a substantial change, he said, given that the initiative is explicit about its $50 per-ounce state tax.
Retail stores can offer discounts, but that decision is left solely up to the business owner.
With commercial marijuana stores set to open during the summer or autumn of 2016, Schulte believes that the medical community has, in many ways, finally been served by Alaska after so many years of being left with few resources.
"I get the need, I sympathize … I just don't share their concern that we've failed them," Schulte said.
Going forward, Alaska Green Angels hopes to become a stand-alone website, where people can connect with others in their community. Eventually, they would like to become a non-profit organization. The plan is to continue providing free cannabis in whatever capacity possible.
"Years ago, this was an unheard-of thing," McKenzie said of giving away marijuana. "Slowly we're attempting to change that paradigm."