Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Greatland Ganja co-owner and cofounder Leif Abel's name.
When Roger Boyd was getting Red Run Cannabis Company, his marijuana cultivation and retail business, licensed by the Kenai city government in April, he told the city Planning and Zoning commission he considered it a statement as much a business. He now considers his statement made. At Red Run’s opening at noon on Monday, a line stretched to the end of the business’s parking lot. By 1:30, the line remained about the same length.
Before doors opened, Kenai city attorney Scott Bloom, Kenai police chief Dave Ross, and two other Kenai officers came for a tour of the building — a renovated One Stop gas station and convenience store owned by Boyd, a retired contractor — from Red Run co-founder Eric Derleth. Derleth showed off Red Run’s three cultivation rooms and outlined the technical complexities needed to not only grow the plants — the building’s air circulates through two HVAC systems — but also to secure them. Red Run has 30 security cameras feeding footage into about 40 terrabytes of storage, backed up in a secure cloud service.
Ross said he’d taken the tour seeking “just general knowledge.”
“It’s a new industry, it’s a new business in Kenai, and it’s important for us for us to know what’s going on,” Ross said.
Although licensed as both a marijuana cultivator and retail store, the excitement at Red Run Monday was on the retail side. Derleth expects Red Run’s own marijuana to be saleable in January. He said that suppliers presently control the marijuana market, and they're struggling to keep up.
“There’s nothing and then there’s a bunch and it goes,” Derleth said of Alaska’s legal marijuana supply. “It’s a matter of having relationships with people and tapping into that.”
Relationships between marijuana activists have made the Alaska marijuana industry possible, Derleth said, even though in many cases these activists are now business competitors. Derleth and Red Run co-founder Marc Theiler are founding members of the Kenai Community Coalition on Cannabis, and their relationship with fellow advocate Leif Abel allowed Red Run to have its opening: the product it offered Monday was grown outdoors this summer by Abel’s Kasilof-based cultivator, Greatland Ganja.
“Greatland Ganja had nine strains, and we worked that out with them ahead of time because they were selling it so fast,” Derleth said. “They held on to it as a good faith gesture.”
Red Run sold all nine strains at the same price: $20 per gram, which some customers said is comparable to, or just slightly above, the street price. Derleth said some black market marijuana can go for $10 a gram, a price he hopes Red Run will be able to reach in two years as more cultivators come into the market.
Missing from Red Run’s sales counter on Monday were marijuana oils, concentrates, and edibles. Alaska has only three licensed marijuana product-manufacturing facilities, and Derleth said the slim supply has kept their productivity low. Red Run plans to sell such products in the future.
At the opening, Abel stood behind a counter with sample buds from each of his strains in jars with vents for smelling. He said that between the weather, technical hang-ups, and his company’s licensing process, completing an outdoor harvest this summer hadn’t been certain. Nonetheless, he said the product sold Monday had been harvested two months ago. It had been delayed by state-required product testing. Currently only two labs are licensed for marijuana testing: one in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks.
Abel said legal marijuana supply is unlikely to match demand any time soon.
“You have this great demand, and you have retailers who will have to cut hours or close for several days a week because they’re trying to limit how much product’s moving so they can stay open more continuously until the next crop,” Abel said. “That will even out in a year or so. ... I encourage all those folks who got their licenses to grow as fast as possible.”
For legal marijuana advocates, 2016 has been a mixed year. In the Nov. 8 general election, three states voted to legalize recreational marijuana and three for medical marijuana. However, the incoming Trump administration’s stance on the drug is unclear, though presumptive attorney general appointee Jeff Sessions has opposed legalization.
Asked if he believes the marijuana industry has permanently established itself as a legal venture, Abel — a board member of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association and executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation — said nothing is certain.
“I feel comfortable with state politics and local politics,” Abel said. “Federal politics are a bit of a larger question right now. I wouldn’t say anything is guaranteed. But what I have learned from this process is you just don’t give up. ... When you have a business that takes two to five years to pay for, you move forward. You don’t stop because of a perceived federal threat. You move forward and involve yourself in politics to the best of your ability.”
Boyd said that while the political future of marijuana may be uncertain, its place in America’s broader culture has permanently changed.
“You know that expression, ‘an idea whose time has come?’” Boyd said. “The normalization and legalization and use of cannabis medically and as a mild intoxicant, that’s just being accepted across the board.”
For customer Carol Schuldt — shopping with her friend Marti Butcher, who had come down from Anchorage for the occasion — Red Run represented a big difference from “the days when you had to buy it from your aunt’s cousin’s brother, or somebody.”
“I can choose what I want, like buying a fine wine, and I can stop by and get it on my way to Home Depot,” she said.
She saw at least one other advantage to the shop.
“I’m not a criminal!” Schuldt shouted as she left Red Run, carrying her purchase in an opaque bag.
The line outside the door cheered.
Ben Boettger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.