The second Northwest Cannabis Classic trade show at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center over the weekend had plenty of free giveaways, including marijuana leaf stickers and lighters. A few exhibitor booths even had edibles such as candies and cookies.
But they wouldn't get you high.
"These aren't infused," said Martin Christensen of the Oracle Cookie Company, pointing at the elaborately flavored cookies he had laid out for convention attendees to try. "The cops actually came over and asked me, 'Are these infused?'"
Anchorage Police Department Sgt. Josh Nolder and two other officers walked the convention floor to make sure pot wasn't being consumed, bought or sold.
"We're also here to make sure that no free samples are being given out," he said, adding later that "the majority of people who came here, came to get free marijuana."
Although Alaska law allows possessing and gifting up to 1 ounce of marijuana, a resolution passed by the Anchorage Assembly in advance of last year's convention prohibits pot giveaways inside municipal buildings during trade shows. It is a decision that Northwest Cannabis Classic organizer Cory Wray disputes, saying people coming to a marijuana convention want to sample marijuana products.
So Wray made it happen. The exhibitors who rented spaces to sell grow lights, pipes and their ideas weren't allowed to provide samples of cannabis to attendees, but most of the 100 people who paid Northwest Cannabis Classic $299 to become convention VIPs received cannabis inside their swag bags. The regular day and weekend entrance fees ranged from $35 to $60.
"It's worth it," said Mary Cathey, pulling two small packages of marijuana from her VIP bag on Saturday. She eagerly paid the fee, not just for the pot but for other benefits, such as exclusive breakfasts and dinners, preferred show seating, special access to exhibitors and a pass to the convention after party held at Pot Luck Events, a marijuana social club in downtown Anchorage.
Wray contends, "VIPs are not paying for a little bag. They're paying for all the other events."
The pot samples didn't sit well with conference-goer Charles Simon, who didn't pay for the VIP package.
"I was told on the phone that there'd be samples, so that is why I came," he said. "So whoever got a VIP bag, got a free sample of hemp and nobody else can get any samples. That makes it unfair to the crowd. That's what's got me miffed."
"They can't do that," said Steve Medina, the Dena'ina Center operations manager. "We heard they were handing out VIP bags, but I don't know what is in them."
Medina said the contract the Dena'ina Center has with Northwest Cannabis Classic spelled out the rules according the Assembly's 2015 resolution. "It's the same as last year. Nothing's changed."
"This is not our first rodeo. We did this last year," Wray said.
Despite last year's precedent, Medina said he put a stop to this year's VIP samples. By mid-afternoon Saturday, he said he instructed convention workers to remove the pot from the bags. But by that time, many of them had already been given out.
"They're pushing the envelope," Medina said of the cannabis group. "They'll do what they can until they get caught."
"If Dena'ina wants to sue me because I broke their contract, then that's up to Dena'ina," Wray said.
He insisted that state law should prevail. "People have civil liberties. And one of those liberties that the voters of Alaska have approved was Ballot Measure 2, which gives people the right to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, and give it away."
And then he questioned the convention entirely: "Am I happy that there's police walking around in there creating tension and making people feel uncomfortable? Absolutely not. Will we come back? Probably not. Will any show come back? Probably not."
Charles Simon came back, walking in through Dena'ina's front door with a satisfied smile on his face.
"Sadly, I had to go home to truly enjoy this experience," he said with a laugh.