IT’S HIGH TIME TO PICK THAT POT
September is harvest season in Alaska and the fields are getting a haircut, while farmers’ markets in Southcentral are teeming with carrots and kale, potatoes and leeks, and a variety of other vegetables such as mizuna, snow apples, and daikon radish.
But for the first time, there’s a big new crop: Cannabis. Its harvest is well under way. By Sept. 21, the air is just too cold in most parts of Alaska — and the ground too — to do the plants any good. The end of the season for sativa plants has arrived.
With as many as 50 licensed commercial cannabis growers around the state working the short-but-intense Alaska growing season, the fall of 2017 will be the first year when a flush of legally grown Alaska marijuana is harvested.
Proposition 2 passed with the voters in 2015, allowing the growing and selling of marijuana. But that led to a long regulatory process that caused last year to be only a partially productive season for commercial cultivators.
This year, those knowledgeable in the industry predict that as much as 3,000 pounds of finished product will address what has been an undersupply problem that has been keeping pot prices in Alaska, ahem, high.
The marijuana industry has been one of the only job-growth sectors in Alaska’s long recession, which started about the time Gov. Bill Walker took office in 2014.
Each of the commercial growers in the state employ about five people, and with harvest season there is a burst of employment for about 30 people for each of these growers. These “trimmigrants” are skilled workers who understand how to make a bud worth hundreds of dollars.
Trimmers snip small leaves away from the bud and make the appearance as aesthetic as possible, since consumer decisions are highly influenced by the look of the bud. Often trimmers get paid by the pound.
“A good trimmer can make $30 an hour and a bad trimmer can turn $1,000 worth of weed into $500 pretty fast,” said one industry insider. Aesthetics of bud trimming, evidently, is a learned skill.
The harvest continues August through September, with growers walking a fine line to get all the plants harvested before the temperatures get too cold.
Most of the harvest will be done in the Mat-Su Valley, where growers use large “high-tunnel” greenhouse systems. To force the plants to bud before they’d normally be ready, growers induce artificial darkness midway through the season by draping their greenhouses for as much as 12 hours a day. The plants are sensitive to the cycle of the sun.
Because of the cold temperatures setting in, most outdoor growers will get only one harvest per year, but that harvest can be worth millions of dollars.
More than 700 Alaskans are said to be working in the cannabis industry, with cultivators averaging five employees each — and up to 30 during the harvest. With about 30 retail stores now open, each employing 5-10 people, and processing, manufacturing and testing labs employing up to another 100, the marijuana industry is a rare economic bright spot in a state that has the highest unemployment in the nation. That doesn’t count the marketing, packaging, transportation, security, and other spin-off economies.
Some of the jobs in the industry require specialized knowledge and experience, according the Alaska Cannabis Institute:
- Cannabis cultivators, who need to know about nutrients, growing mediums, light and temperature control, diseases and breeding.
- Extraction technicians, who manufacture concentrates through the use of dry ice, propane, butane and other hazardous materials.
- Food preparation, such as candy makers and bakers. An experienced cannabis chef can demand up to $30 an hour.
- Budtender, like a bartender for cannabis, is the point-of-sales person advising and selling all the products to the consumer. The hourly rate can start at about $15.
SOCIAL CLUBS, CAFES NOW UNDERGOING REGULATORY REVIEW
The next stage of legalized marijuana use is under consideration, which would allow for social clubs or cafes that would operate similar to bars that serve alcoholic beverages. Regulations to enable such public consumption are under consideration and are currently open to public comment.
It’s a move that been requested by a diverse cross-section of the population — tourism, local government, and consumers have all requested it.
The tourism industry has wanted a solution to tourists buying cannabis and then using hotel rooms or rental cars to consume it. They prefer a licensed establishment where tourists can use product safely. Consumers of pot who rent in pot-free buildings also have been seeking places where they can get high, proponents say.
The Walker Administration has slow-walked this part of the regulatory process, while publicly claiming to support the voter initiative that was Ballot Measure 2. His administration has let the tourism season go by without providing a viable mechanism for tourists to actually consume the pot they buy in Alaska.
However, last week, the State of Alaska posted a notice of a change in regulations that would allow retail licensees to apply for onsite consumption permits.
Under the proposal, the state would allow cannabis buying and consuming on site, either by vaporization or smoking, in one gram limits. No concentrates would be allowed but pot-laced consumables and pot-free food could be sold. There is a proposed rule that would protect cannabis cafe workers from exposure to marijuana smoke while working.
Comments are being received no later than 4:30 pm, Oct. 27 at the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office at 550 West 7th Avenue, Suite 1600, Anchorage, AK 99501 and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The control board is also taking questions about the changes they propose in these regulations, and people may submit those questions at least 10 days before the end of the public comment period. The agency will aggregate its responses to similar questions and make those available on the Alaska Online Public Notice System.