The new marijuana industry may not be what we bargained for

Marijuana taxes won't solve Alaska's state budget, as many people seem to hope. Every resident of legal age would need to buy 10 pounds a year to do that, according to a Department of Revenue official.

As the first pot shops open around the state, many expectations about what commercial marijuana will look like could be wrong. By experimenting with marijuana, as only the third state to legalize a recreational industry, we could be in for a good high, a bad trip or, as I've usually experienced with weed, "Meh."

My sense is more people will use marijuana. With pot in more homes, more kids will try it. There will be more stoned drivers on the road. Some folks will make a go of it with mom and pop businesses. Many will fail.

In a few years, as more states legalize and the federal government removes barriers, bigger investors will take over. That's when we can expect political influence and corruption to start, as often comes with heavily regulated industries.

Alaska is licensing many more marijuana businesses than can survive, as some industry members agree. If you're anywhere on Spenard Road, you'll rarely be more than a couple of blocks from a marijuana shop. Thanks to regulations controlling their distance from schools and such, and the lack of bank financing, most shops occupy rundown buildings and look seedy.

[Here are the 20 Anchorage marijuana shops closest to opening]

Who will shop at these places?


The heavy users will probably continue getting weed from their black market dealers. If you're addicted, which to me means you use so much your life is messed up, you can't afford to switch to a product that costs more due to taxes, testing, overhead and the absurd amount of regulation the industry faces.

That problem could strangle the market. For comparison, the alcohol industry makes most of its money from alcoholics. The top 10 percent of drinkers, who average over 10 drinks a day, buy more than 50 percent of the booze in our country. If you shifted those addicts to a black market, the legal alcohol industry would collapse.

Alaska's marijuana regulations are designed to block current dealers from coming into the legal industry. This reminds me of President George W. Bush's decision to disband the Iraqi army after conquering their country. Saddam Hussein's soldiers didn't disappear, they became insurgents. Today's marijuana dealers won't quit either.

Most of the new business owners are not druggie types. They use drug culture lingo — I've never heard any other plant cultivation business called a "grow operation," for example — but most of those I've met would be comfortable at a chamber of commerce meeting.

Their product will be pure. Testing goes far beyond what is required for food or even nutritional supplements like vitamins.

[Why legal pot may suddenly be in big danger under Trump]

The co-owner of Dankorage, a shop opening next month at Benson Boulevard and Spenard, is a former kindergarten teacher. Lily Bosshart said her business plan relies on new users.

"If you smoke marijuana, everyone's got a guy who sells it to you," she said. "I'm hoping that people who don't have a guy, but who are interested, adult professionals, maybe users when they were kids, in high school or in college — hopefully not in high school but in college — they stopped because they became adults and they didn't want to buy illegal drugs anymore, but now that its legal, having a place to go."

Bringing in those new users will require some clever marketing. Adults who don't use marijuana because they respect the law won't frequent dodgy pot shops that look like pull-tab stores.

While traveling earlier this month, I visited a marijuana store targeting this new market in the affluent neighborhood of West Seattle. The shop, called Origins, is on a residential street in a building shared with a children's physical fitness business. It looked a lot more inviting than most of the grungy places opening in Anchorage.

On a Saturday afternoon, a musician drew customers in with an electric guitar. A guy who looked like a nightclub bouncer politely checked our identification. The showroom was bright and clean, with fashionable tile work and flooring and big TV monitors that advertised the company's sophisticated marketing message.

Sales staff offered product lines for those who were just sticking a toe into drug use, those who might use moderately for relaxation or social anxiety, or for heavy users looking for the strongest high. They asked customers to self-identify by "Lifestyle" categories with names like, "Adventurous," "Social," or "Holistic."

Origin's website describes the "Self Discovery" lifestyle this way: "You want to challenge your mind. Reflection is important to you and it's about becoming a better person. On the other hand, maybe you just don't know who you can be because life has been holding you back. Well, let's explore this together."

Skilled corporate marketers will be far better pushers than street dealers ever could be. I've been offered pot before, but no one ever told me it would make me a better person.

When Alaskans voted for recreational marijuana two years ago, I think most were just tired of seeing people get in trouble for an activity they considered relatively harmless.

But to win votes, proponents promised a highly regulated industry. Regulation has given us a complex system of marijuana cultivation, testing and sales that must spawn new users to survive.

Established industries can thrive on regulation. Paperwork, training and land use rules create barriers to competition. Trade associations and campaign contributions can steer regulations to benefit businesses over consumers. The alcohol industry corrupted Alaska politics in territorial days and still calls shots in local and state government.


I'm betting the pot industry will eventually be controlled by large corporations enlisting government's help to get as many people stoned as possible.

If we had to legalize marijuana — and maybe we did, although I voted no — I wish we had done it with minimal regulation, putting restrictions only on the size of any one operation. Let them sell it at farmers markets.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.