SPONSORED: How should marijuana plants be tested for potency?
What happens when a business owner wants to sell her cannabis shop?
Should a local government have the authority to approve a dispensary across the street from a school?
Those are just a few of the questions cannabis policymakers have had to consider as Alaska learns to navigate its newest industry.
In any new endeavor, ways of doing business are likely to evolve over time. For canna-businesses, in an industry where prohibition has only recently been replaced by regulation, that evolution often has to wait for the regulatory process to catch up.
“The regulations are three years old, but there are some things in there that need to get changed,” said Anchorage business owner Nick Miller.
Miller was appointed to the state’s Marijuana Control Board as an industry representative in 2016. He said he recognizes the importance of the regulations around cannabis, although the complex rules do require business owners in his industry to plan ahead -- and learn patience.
“We can’t come to work one day and change a process,” Miller said.
If a cannabis store like Miller’s ALASKAbuds wants to adjust the way it handles its products, “we have to apply to the Marijuana Control Board to make that change.”
And when it comes to cannabis policy, change doesn’t happen overnight.
A public process
Cannabis regulations in Alaska are overseen by the state’s Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, and its Marijuana Control Board, which is tasked with following the intent of the voter initiative approved in 2014. As recently as this month, AMCO was in the process of gathering public comment on regulations covering questions like how much it should cost to renew a handler permit and whether cultivators should be allowed to provide sample jars for customers to sniff before making a purchase.
“With this being a young industry, we have many regulations projects open at any given time,” said Sara Daulton Oates, who served as AMCO’s program coordinator before she was named president and CEO of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers association last month. “Changes are proposed when existing law is ambiguous, to conform to changes in statutes or when existing regulations are ineffective or onerous.”
Alaska’s cannabis regulations are built upon AS 17.38, which became law when the legalization initiative passed. Any changes that are made to the law must be done within the scope of that statute, Oates said.
Part of Oates’ role with AMCO was analyzing existing and proposed laws and making recommendations for amendments to the Marijuana Control Board, a panel of five members who represent the cannabis industry, rural Alaska, public health and public safety.
“AMCO staff or members can propose that the board open a regulation project, but a majority of the board must vote to do so before draft language can be put out for public comment,” Oates said.
Once a proposed change has been drafted, reviewed and ratified by a majority of the Marijuana Control Board, you might think that’s that -- but in reality, the process is just beginning.
What comes next?
• AMCO provides public notice of new laws or amendments, both in newspaper ads and posted on its website. Public comment must be submitted within a specified timeframe, generally 30 to 60 days.
• Once public comment has been received, the Marijuana Control Board meets to review and consider all commentary before determining whether or not changes should be made.
• The proposed change is then sent to the Department of Law for review, a task that may take up to 60 days to complete.
• A final version is then forwarded to the lieutenant governor, who has 90 days to review and sign the new or amended regulation.
The entire process from start to finish usually takes at least nine months -- sometimes longer.
Oftentimes, Miller said, he’ll hear from members of the public who want to know why things don’t move more quickly.
“They get frustrated,” Miller said. “They feel like the industry isn’t moving forward because of language, but that’s the point of public process. Everybody gets their say.”
Tasting rooms: The next big change?
As the industry continues to evolve, the rules that govern it are expected to do the same, according to Good Titrations owner Brandon Emmett, who also represents the industry on the Marijuana Control Board.
“I see new regulations surrounding the testing of marijuana and marijuana products to emerge soon, as well as regulations addressing onsite consumption, public consumption, security, taxation and advertising,” Emmett said.
“Social consumption” of cannabis is a significant and growing area of regulatory interest in Alaska and beyond, according to Oates. Currently, Alaska shops can sell cannabis, but it’s against the law for consumers to use cannabis products in a retail store. So you can buy a joint, but you have to go home to smoke it -- a concern particularly for tourists, who likely don’t have access to a private residence.
“I would expect legislation to make headway in the coming years in regards to onsite consumption, as well as regulations regarding packaging, labeling and testing,” Oates said.
Onsite consumption is one of the most pressing regulatory issues for many retail shop owners who would like to be able to offer customers an experience similar to a tasting room at a brewery or winery. And change may be on the horizon. At its most recent meeting on Dec. 19, the Marijuana Control Board reviewed public comment on a proposed amendment that would provide for retail licensees to apply for an endorsement allowing them to set up a separate area for customers to smoke and/or consume edibles.
Emmett said he expects that in the future, Alaska’s cannabis laws will look something like a hybrid of alcohol and tobacco rules. In the meantime, he added, it’s in any cannabis entrepreneur’s best interest to stay abreast of regulations:
“I recommend anyone just starting out retain a good attorney.”
ALASKAbuds has been providing Anchorage residents with top-quality cannabis, edibles, concentrates, accessories and supplies. Join us this winter as we celebrate the grand opening of our second location -- the first cannabis retail store in Bethel!
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.