As 2019 approached, Alaska citizens debated if it should be the first state to create a legal structure for on-site marijuana consumption, and cannabis retailer Jake Warden wanted to make his chance to add to the discussion mean something.
“I'm sitting here picking my brain, doing research,” he said, a few hours before he spoke before the Marijuana Control Board's Dec. 19, 2018, public meeting in Anchorage. Various forms of social consumption lounges have operated in Alaska, but in 2016, the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development offered a legal opinion about marijuana social clubs that declared them public venues and thus illegal.
Regulations to manage onsite consumption had been hotly debated among Alaska lawmakers, business leaders and citizens for three-plus years. True to its pioneer heritage, in 2015 Alaska became the third U.S. state to allow adult-use cannabis, and now stands to show the lower 48 how to partner onsite consumption with retail sales.
On Dec. 20, the board voted 3-2 to allow customers to purchase and immediately consume marijuana at select locations throughout Alaska in a manner that resembles buying alcoholic drinks at a bar.
While the decision must be reviewed by Alaska's Department of Law and earn the signature of Republican Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, some industry insiders remain optimistic about the board's approval.
“It's a nice option to offer, another layer (of service),” said Brad Parker, a packaging manager for GoodSinse, a Fairbanks-based cannabis retailer. “I think the time is right.”
Supporters of consumption areas cited potential benefits to tourism. Out-of-state visitors and locals alike have been barred from legally consuming cannabis in any public place.
“It's kind of what (the legislation) was shaped for,” Warden said. “Not having on-site consumption is detrimental to the tourist industry. There is nowhere to smoke and it makes [tourists] feel alienated.”
Opposition to onsite consumption has come in many forms, including an opinion article published Dec. 14, 2018, in the Anchorage Daily News that warned of the dangers of secondhand marijuana smoke and driving while impaired.
The new regulations also could face significant delays resulting from the ban on public indoor smoking that then-Gov. Bill Walker signed into law on July 17, 2018. The Smokefree Alaska bill “prohibits smoking in enclosed public places and workplaces, including buses, taxis, stores, bars, and restaurants.”
The board voted to permit freestanding cannabis retail stores to construct a separate room so customers can consume their purchases of up to 1 gram of “flower” or 10 milligrams of edibles.
Among the rules the Department of Law will analyze over the next several weeks include:
- How businesses will apply for the state's on-site endorsement.
- How consumption areas will be constructed indoors and outdoors, and how will they include well-ventilated rooms that are separated from the shops by a wall and a secure door.
- How each shop will create a smoke-free room to allow employees to monitor the designated consumption areas.
Evan Schlosberg, dispensary managing partner of The Frost Farms in Anchorage, said he's targeting 2020 for the legislation's finer details to be worked out.
“Right now, it's not part of our business model,” Schlosberg said. “There are going to be a lot of hoops to jump through, a difficult process. We are taking a wait-and-see approach. We want to see how others problem-solve.”