Alaska’s faces rough terrain with marijuana regulation

Alaska faces rough terrain with marijuana regulation

Alaska’s mountainous terrain is the state’s biggest obstacle (literally) to getting everyone in the marijuana industry online and registered. Not only is Alaska’s population a sparce 740,000 -- the residents are spread out to a degree unimaginable in most states, with only 40 percent of population centers accessible by roads. The only way to get to many towns, including the capital, is via air or water.

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In many of these towns, Internet access is not available. This frustrates many Alaskans who are trying to get their businesses online and legal, according Cynthia Franklin, director of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.  “It is incredibly upsetting to many Alaskans that they have to have an Internet connection to get a license because of the geography. You really couldn’t pick a state with more geographic challenges.”

For the more remote towns, Franklin said, the next challenge is taking the federal marijuana enforcement guidelines outlined in the Cole Memo and reworking them to be realistic for Alaska’s geography. Each municipality can tweak the guidelines so they make sense for its area and population, but the local guidelines can’t be less strict than state rules. Local governments can set the number of licenses issued, limit the hours marijuana businesses are open, expand the distance (beyond the state limit) between marijuana establishments and schools, Franklin said.

"Take, for example, the buffer zone in Alaska around schools, churches,” Franklin said. One board voted for the buffer zone to be 500 feet, the same as the state’s drug-free school zone, which is half of the federal drug-free school zone. “There are certain communities in Alaska that if you placed something 1,000 feet from the establishment, you wouldn’t be in town.”

Alaska just signed a contract with Franwell to do its seed-to-sale tracking. Franwell, which developed Colorado’s and Oregon’s marijuana tracking system, uses radio-frequency ID tags (developed originally for perishable agriculture and airfreight cargo) to track marijuana production. Franklin said she expects the system to be up and running May 23, with the first testing and cultivation licenses to be issued June 9.

For the licensing side of things, Franklin said the state’s system was all developed in-house modeled after a database being used by Commerce department. “It’s a hybrid system. We take applications online but people are also emailing them to us,” she said. “But in a year our system will be beefed up to be an all electronic licensing system.” 

For now, the licensing and tracking systems do not work together to help identify problems with compliance, although ideally, an anomaly spotted by the tracking system, would alert the licensing side. Franklin said that’s a goal for  the future. “We hope someday that the two systems will talk to each other. That’s not going to happen right now.”

As for who is staying on top of Alaska’s marijuana regulation, small population means a small staff, which Franklin said is another challenge, especially in a huge state with rough terrain. “I have myself and 16 employees to license and enforce alcohol and marijuana establishments statewide. We have four people responsible for liquor and marijuana licenses. We have eight enforcement officers statewide. And we have a three person administrative staff.”

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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