SPONSORED: Since the legalization of commercial cannabis in the state of Alaska, there seem to be new shops popping up on a daily basis. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, there were just nine cannabis businesses operating in the state in 2016. That number grew to 73 by the end of 2017 and is still climbing.

While Alaska's job market has been in a slow but steady decline in recent years, the marijuana market is flourishing, providing new employment opportunities to Alaskans with a wide range of skillsets.

Karinne Wiebold, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the growth in cannabis jobs "comes at a welcome time for the state, as we have been in a recession for several years."

"In the first year and a half since legalization, we saw employment numbers ramp up at a rapid rate," said Wiebold, who authored an article about the industry's growth in the May issue of Alaska Economic Trends. "There have been a number of new licenses approved since then, and employment will continue to increase as new operations enter the market."

A growth industry

Anchorage business owner Bryant Thorp is witnessing the industry's growth firsthand. His shop, Arctic Herbery, employs approximately eight people and continues to expand.

"I left a professional career in real estate for the cannabis industry," Thorp said. "I happened to be in Seattle the day they legalized recreational use, and I was amazed at how crazy people went. I realized that if Alaska was going to legalize it, I needed to be in on it."

On the surface, it might appear the industry is already becoming saturated with shops, but Thorp said things are really just getting started.

"Look at it this way," he said. "You see liquor stores on every corner, and while this industry isn't exactly the same as alcohol, there are still many areas in Anchorage where there aren't any shops at all."

Thorp's employees all start as retail clerks, with the opportunity for training in cultivation, trimming and other jobs.

"I want to see somebody that actually wants to work and do the job, because it is a job," he said. "I have an incredible staff right now and I'm very happy with all of them."

'Jobs that can't fit anywhere else'

While the Department of Labor's data shows cannabis-related employment as a very small sector of the Alaska workforce overall, by the end of 2017 it did make up 0.2 percent of Alaska's total employment. The cannabis industry paid $8.5 million in wages in Alaska last year.

Wiebold emphasized the need for cannabusiness owners to learn and understand Alaska's regulatory requirements, which include handler permits for all employees. As of May 2018, the state reported that nearly 4,000 Alaskans held active marijuana handler permits.

One of those Alaskans is Henry Bolanos, the sales operations coordinator at Good Titrations, a Fairbanks company that produces cannabis concentrates.

"My job is to make sure the menu is up to date and correct, deal with any customer questions or any order discrepancies, and manage our new online ordering program," Bolanos said.

He sees the cannabis industry as an innovator in Alaska's job market.

"I think it is creating jobs that can't fit anywhere else," he said. "Businesses like mobile budtender companies, jobs that weren't even there before the industry started."

Bolanos, who comes from a military and business background, said cannabis has become a career he loves.

"It has really helped me figure out what I want to do with my life," he said. "I enjoy going to work every day."

Potential for jobs at all levels

Bolanos is one of 17 people employed by Good Titrations, where the benefits package includes health insurance for employees and their dependents. Good Titrations owner Brandon Emmett says it's important to him to be able to offer a living wage and good working conditions.

"What's most important to me as a business owner is providing a stable and positive work environment, because it always boils down to morale," said Emmett.

A former paramedic who now serves on the Marijuana Control Board and as president of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, Emmett says the cannabis industry provides career opportunities beyond the more obvious customer-facing retail positions — jobs for horticulturists, gardeners, mechanics, chemists, packagers, attorneys, clerks and more.

"The cannabis industry has provided jobs that were unfilled due to our economic downturn," Emmett said. "In Fairbanks, the trucking industry was hit hard by low oil prices and falling production. Many of the warehouses now being rented by marijuana growers were previously used by truckers and mechanics."

Emmett said he predicts the market will keep expanding as new products and advances loom on the horizon — things like large-scale production of vapor cartridges, a swell in the popularity of cannabis-infused beverages, and more affordable production as growing technology evolves.

"The possibilities for employment of highly skilled people is increasing every year, and as the industry continues to mature, more jobs for unskilled labor will also be created," Emmett said.

For Henry Bolanos, it's an exciting time to be sitting front-row in a field that's booming.

"This industry is in its infancy. There's so much by way of logistics, product, manufacturing," he said. "I'm in the perfect place to grow with it, and the excitement I feel is inexplicable."

Good Titrations is a Fairbanks business that specializes in producing high-quality cannabis concentrates. Good Titrations products are available at retailers throughout Alaska. Learn more at www.GoodTitrations.com

Blunt Talk is a series of original articles sponsored by Alaska cannabis businesses and organizations to highlight the real people, families, businesses and groups impacted by the legalization of cannabis in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the series sponsors. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.