Alaska Marijuana News

Industry and curiosity draw crowds to Anchorage cannabis trade show

From the variety of specialized products to visitors eager to learn industry tips, the Northwest Cannabis Classic in Anchorage on Saturday looked like a typical trade show.

The obvious exceptions were the cannabis plants displayed in glass jars beneath LED lights, helping make what organizers said was the first event of its kind in Alaska since voters approved the legalization of marijuana more than six months ago.

Aimed at sharing information about the fledgling industry, the three-day show at the Dena'ina Center features panels, demonstrations and products that range from lighting technology to smoking instruments to flower enhancers and plant food. It generated a buzz, with about 700 people buying presale tickets and about as many day-of tickets bought on Saturday, said event organizer Cory Wray.

By Saturday afternoon, the third floor of the convention center was populated with dozens of booths and a steady flow of people. Twenty-somethings mingled with retirees. Some wore cowboy hats and tie-dyed T-shirts; others wore sport coats.

"It's a trade show, not a party," said Jason Brandeis, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor who has extensively researched marijuana and spoke on a morning panel at the trade show about the future of cannabis in Alaska.

Visitors weren't allowed to consume or buy marijuana at the show but some cannabis plants were on display, the result of a last-minute change in city policy allowing marijuana to be displayed inside the convention center. In the absence of state regulations, the Anchorage Assembly adopted a policy Tuesday that addressed issues like insurance, cannabis displays and even odors.

City officials said they planned to watch Saturday's show as a test run for similar events in the future.

"If this goes well, this could be the model," city attorney Dennis Wheeler said earlier in the week. "If we need to make changes and adjustments, we'll do that."

The excitement surrounding the event was dampened by legal quagmires confronting would-be marijuana cultivation businesses. One of the first booths many visitors encountered walking into the show was AK Hydro Gardens -- a company that shut down its medical marijuana cultivation business six days ago in the face of potential enforcement action by the state for operating without a license.

Owner Ryan Smith said his company, a sponsor of the show, had spent the last week revamping itself into a consulting firm. He said AK Hydro Gardens plans to advise people who want to grow their own plants and give away free cuttings of cannabis plants to anybody who signs up for a contract.

Smith also said foot traffic Saturday was "10 times" what he expected. His company had printed out 800 fliers, all of which were gone in two hours, he said.

Among the more eye-catching features of the show were the phone-booth-shaped tents with LED lights shining down on leafy green cannabis plants. Jim Farrell, 55, and MaryJo Langford, 51, listened with interest as Smith discussed the LED lighting techniques associated with the tent. Langford asked how much it cost, and how long it took to grow the plant.

Farrell and Langford said they attended the trade show hoping to learn as much as they could about new technologies. Both said they were interested in getting into the marijuana business in the future.

"I never thought I would see this in my lifetime," said Langford, an Anchorage resident. "I'm astounded."

Nearby, glass jars with dried green plants balled up inside were lined up on a table. Mane Bustamante unscrewed each lid, held it up and inhaled.

Bustamante, a 43-year-old journeyman painter, said a strain called Quantum Kush stood out to him as being the most potent. He said he's had a medical marijuana card for several years and wanted to learn more about the drug at the trade show.

Bustamante also said he'd hoped the show would feature opportunities to try out different strains, but the Anchorage Assembly voted against allowing consumption in the new policy. Vendors weren't allowed to remove plants from containers, but they could open containers to demonstrate differences in smell or sale techniques.

Jody Reynolds, a co-owner of Happy Skeeter, an Anchorage business that she said plans to sell edibles and other products once commercial regulations are in place, said the show was "great for a beginning," though she also hoped future events would allow consumption.

"It's one thing to come in and look at it and smell it; it's another thing to see how people are reacting to it," Reynolds said.

At another booth, Randy Larson displayed equipment for extracting butane oil. Larson, who represents Best Value Vacs and also runs a nonprofit called AK Trim 4 Vets, said he's working with the Girdwood fire chief on a pamphlet about safe extraction techniques after several explosions in the area. He said most people are "unaware, uneducated" about such systems.

Taylor Bickford, director of Alaska operations for the marketing and consulting firm Strategies 360, said the show combined national vendors with highly specialized products and local businesses simply looking for a foothold in an emerging state industry.

He said there's also a "gold rush" mentality among Alaska companies that don't directly handle cannabis products but provide related supplies, such as lighting equipment.

"There's a lot of excitement. I think you're seeing the emergence of a real Alaska industry," said Bickford, who worked on the marijuana legalization campaign for Strategies 360.

Beneath the general excitement, however, frustration brewed over the questions about legal framework. Jay Redbone, 58, said he came to learn about state regulations and found himself "a little irritated."

"Nobody knows what's going on," Redbone said.

At his booth on Saturday, Cy Scott, co-founder of the cannabis information site Leafly, said it's hard to tell what will happen in Alaska with regulations still in flux. But he said he's noticed a spike in visitors to his site since the drug became legal in Alaska.

Most were just taking the scene in. One young couple -- Haley Niederhauser, 25, and Michael Drobnick, 26 -- drove up from the Kenai Peninsula for the trade show.

They said they appreciated the open atmosphere.

"It's the first thing you can walk into and not feel ... sketch," Niederhauser said, glancing around. "It feels good."

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.