Marijuana Control Board approves first Nome pot store
The Alaska Marijuana Control Board put in three days of hard work in Nome April 4, 5, and 6 at the Aurora Inn.
The five-person board, less one, dealt with the complicated issues involved with licensing and regulating the sales of cannabis products in Alaska.
Licensing retailers and growers took up most of the time, but there were also proposed regulations to be considered.
About 30 individuals were present in person for the hearings with more calling in. All save one were from the road system.
The lone exception was Nome’s Robin Thomas, whose license for a retail store in Nome was approved.
The board wants to ensure that growers and retailers conform to strict regulations, some of which are still in a process of evolving. Ideas have been borrowed from states where marijuana is legal, such as Colorado, but to be a good fit for Alaska some tweaking is needed. The amount of detail the board gets into is impressive. It might appear to be long-range micromanagement but there are reasons for the concern with details. One result is the board’s meetings can proceed at a snail’s pace.
Mason Evans of Fairbanks, representing Grass Station 49, has plans to open a retail cannabis store in what used to be the building that housed the Kegoayah Kozga Library and the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum on Front Street. Grass Station 49 purchased the building from the City of Nome and has firm plans for the cannabis store as well as for a café on the upper floor of the building. But Evans, who is not the same Mason Evans who grew up in Nome, was in town for a different part of his cannabis business. The board approved Grass Station 49’s application for their second retail location, situated in Fairbanks on the corner of the Steese Highway and Chena Hot Springs Road. Their original location is also in Fairbanks.
Grass Station 49 has three more locations in the planning stages. One being the Nome store, and two more planned for Fairbanks.
“We’re strictly retail, we plan on staying retail,” said Evans. “That’s how we get a lot of the clients. They know we aren’t going to be biased when selling product.” Some cannabis growers have their own retail stores and some sell wholesale only. Grass Station 49 has no plans to grow cannabis.
“We focus 100 percent of our energy on retail and our clients as well as our employees,” said Evans. “Our philosophy is if we have happy employees, happy clients we’re going to have a successful store.”
Evans previously had a staffing agency. His younger brother is his partner and is a geologist by trade.
“We just came together, wanted to do something different, didn’t see the construction world going very far, the cannabis industry seemed new and exciting, a way to leave our stamp on something, be a part of a movement,” said Evans.
Their mother was using cannabis for several medical conditions and their grandmother used it while undergoing treatment for cancer. So the brothers were familiar with cannabis.
“We got to see cannabis in action,” said Evans. “We got to see it work.”
He hopes to see the Nome retail store up and running sometime before 2019.
“I know that sounds like a long ways away but it’s right around the corner,” he said. “What eats up a lot of our time is the preliminary licensing requirements. You have to go through the state fire marshal, you have to get your certificate of occupancy through the city and then you have to get the elevator certified. We have a couple of steps that are going to take a month or so at least. We’ll get the licensing rolling and then it should be about six months from there depending on how stacked up AMCO is. They’ve been doing a great job at getting through the applications. They’ve recently hired some new people and seem to be picking up some speed. They’re putting in a couple meetings in between just to take care of the backlog.”
Evans is aware that there was some vocal opposition to turning a historic building into a pot shop. He encourages people to take a look at their current facility.
“It’s not a dark, grim place filled with inappropriate people. We have a clean and inviting atmosphere, we play music in the background,” he said.
The plan is to locate the retail cannabis store on the ground level and upstairs they’ll open a café. The building will be wrapped with a deck so café patrons can enjoy their coffee in the sunshine or watch the Iron Dog and Iditarod. The café will be a separate business.
“We’re going to do 100 percent local hire,” said Evans. “We understand that’s going to be tricky. My brother and I will take turns here. We’ll be sending staff out for training. It will take six months before we can start running it remotely.”
Nome’s first licensed cannabis retail
Robin Thomas of Nome is the proprietor of Gudlief Organization, which is located on West E Street. His license for a retail cannabis store was approved by the board on Thursday. This was a reconsideration of a denial of a license last November. Thomas corrected errors in his application and made a few changes in the building where he grows cannabis and the board was satisfied. Thomas is the first retailer in Western Alaska and, depending on which source one looks at, the first retailer off the road system.
“It’s been a while coming to have a legal resource for weed,” said Thomas. “I imagine now that people have been studying the process that more and more will be coming online. At one time I wanted to start a consulting business and try and help some of the smaller villages get into it. But I got a negative response from all of them.”
Thomas believes there is a fair amount of negativity toward marijuana in many places in rural Alaska, but that the villages are getting it anyway. “But it changes hands so many times that it’s ridiculously expensive. Which leads to spending your rent money or your dinner money on a very small amount of pot.”
While illegal weed is expensive, the legal weed is going to cost plenty as well. The Nugget asked Thomas whether he’ll be able to compete.
“That remains to be seen,” he said. “I think I could sell it for less if I had to. But I don’t know how long I could do that and still be able to pay the rent. If it comes to that maybe we’ll have a price war in Nome and the only one to benefit will be the customer.”
Thomas owns the building his grow operation and the retail store are located in. He pays rent for the property the building is located on. After a long period with no income from the cannabis grow business he was running low on cash, despite commercial fishing. So he advertised for a partner on Facebook and Nome Post. Kalla Peacock responded and now the two are partners, with Thomas owning the controlling 51percent.
“The meter was running and I was two months behind on my electric and I needed to order stuff to get ready for retail,” he said. The point of sale software costs $10,000 but can be paid off in installments. It runs on an iPad and is connected to the label printing machine and barcodes and the cash register. It puts everything into Metric, which is the tracking software for the state. Without the data-tracking software everything has to be entered manually into Metric.
The grower is required to track each plant from seed until sale and all the information goes into Metric. It takes about a month from the time the seed is planted until it is a plant 18 inches tall. The plants spend up to two months in the flower room, basking under special lights. The temperature of the room is a comfy 80°F and the humidity is controlled.
“Let’s say I have 60 plants. I put ten plants into the flower room every week for six weeks. So I’m pulling ten plants out and putting ten plants in.” Each plant yields three ounces of cannabis.
“If we run out of product then we have to look at importing some,” said Thomas. “When I’ve penciled it out, if the demand is what I think it is, we won’t be able to keep up.”
With other retailers opening up in Nome the sales pressure will be distributed among them as well. Thomas knows of two more for sure and has heard rumors of a third. But it takes seven months to a year to open up.
At this time Thomas has no employees, but he does have volunteer workers helping. They have their handlers cards, required to work in the cannabis business, and are ready to go to work as soon as the business is set up.