Alaska's Marijuana Industry Has a Unique Problem: How to Move Product

Since voters there legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, officials in Alaska have been hashing out logistical issues, including how to transport marijuana to communities across the state without violating federal law, since there are few roads and it's against federal law to move marijuana on planes and boats.

Alaska is massive, twice the size of Texas — but with a population of a little over 738,000, it’s ranked last for population density in the United States. The bulk of Alaska’s residents live in the city of Anchorage and surrounding areas, and most of the rest of the population resides in small cities and towns dotted across the beautiful but unforgiving landscape, with many of these communities positioned along Alaska's extensive coastline.

“What makes Alaska different from Colorado, Washington and Oregon is the issue of having so many cities without road access,” says Erika McConnell, marijuana coordinator at the Municipality of Anchorage’s Office of Economic and Community Development.

This unique aspect of the state has created an equally unique issue: How do you get marijuana to a town that isn't on the road system without violating federal law? This was one of many topics McConnell discussed at Denver's Marijuana Management Symposium's national roundtable, where representatives from other states described the issues they were facing.

Even though many states have legalized marijuana — Alaska is one of eight that has approved recreational marijuana — it is still against federal law to transport marijuana by air or sea. Alaska's rules allow the shipment of marijuana between businesses, but they don’t stipulate exactly how that transport should happen. Sending marijuana through the mail is illegal, and pilots could lose their licenses if they are found to knowingly transport marijuana.

Shipping by boat is also tricky; the U.S. Coast Guard controls the sea and enforces federal laws, which prohibit marijuana. With these restrictions, it's almost impossible for Alaska's far-flung dispensaries to stock their shelves, since the majority of marijuana products are grown and manufactured in Alaska's urban areas.

Why don't these business owners avoid the issue and grow and manufacture their own marijuana products? Alaska requires that marijuana flower, concentrate and edibles be tested in a state-licensed facility for their percentages of THC and CBD, and for microbials including Salmonella, Aspergillus and E. coli. At this time, there is only one licensed testing facility operating in the state, in the Anchorage area. While smaller rural shops could potentially grow and manufacture their own products, they would still need to get them tested — and there's not enough business in these communities to support an expensive testing facility. Mobile labs have also been ruled out for now, because of the size of the testing equipment and the challenges of transporting it. Another option is to create a marijuana Pony Express by transporting cannabis across the state on snowmobiles and ATVs; that's being considered, but it could be a logistical nightmare.

Transporting small quantities through commercial air travel within Alaska might be the best option to satisfy the state's testing requirements. TSA policy is to call the police whenever someone is discovered to have marijuana; the TSA then lets local law enforcement determine whether to allow the individual permission to keep it and still board the flight. Since 2015, passengers at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport possessing the state limit of one ounce or less have been permitted to keep their marijuana after they've been interviewed by police. However, this option for transporting marijuana isn’t guaranteed, as many Alaska communities' law enforcement agents will confiscate marijuana in this situation — and it doesn't solve any federal illegality.

As Cynthia Franklin, director of Alaska’s Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office, says, “The board has repeatedly told licensees and the public that this is not something they can fix by overruling the federal government’s stance on transportation.” She explains that transporting marijuana within the state is in full compliance with Alaska state regulations, but recommends that any concerned business owners consult the Cole Memo for further guidance on the federal government’s stance on marijuana.

The Cole Memo is a memorandum published by the Department of Justice and written by then-deputy attorney general James Cole. It describes a set of priorities for federal prosecutors operating in states that have legalized marijuana, including preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing marijuana revenue from going to criminal enterprises, and preventing violence within the marijuana industry. If states take a proactive approach toward these priorities and create a robust system of regulation around marijuana, the Department of Justice would take a hands-off approach toward marijuana in their state, the memo states. But with the changes in Washington, that could change, too.

Everything is bigger in Alaska, including the conflicts between state and federal law. As Franklin puts it, “Everything they are doing as a licensee violates federal law.”

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.