Home Living Home & Gardening Northwest Cannabis Classic Brings Alaska Marijuana Community Out of the Shadows

Northwest Cannabis Classic Brings Alaska Marijuana Community Out of the Shadows

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Saturday morning brought a lot of favorable conditions to residents of Anchorage. The sun was out, the streets were filled with music echoing from town square park, and the Dena’ina was about to make history. At noon, the doors opened for the first ever Northwest Cannabis Classic, an two-day expo of product demonstrations, vendors booths, seminars, live music and more — all on the topic of marijuana, now legal in the state of Alaska.

An outside patio saw dozens of patrons enjoying a cigarette, vape pen, glass of wine or beer, and by the smell of it quite a bit more. Rows of vendors filled the inside of the main event hall, where curious Alaskans — many who drove or flew in from all corners of the state — collected stickers, business cards, fliers, and marijuana accessories. Staffing the booths were hopeful entrepreneurs looking to be among the first to branch out into the frontier of the marijuana business.

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AK Smoke and Vape.

Entrepreneurs like Jill Williams, owner of The Look boutique in Anchorage. She stood behind her booth talking to guests throughout Saturday as they peered through a wide variety of vaporizing kits, pipes, and bongs.

“We’ve been around since 1984 here in beautiful Anchorage, Alaska,” she told me. Her new venture is called AK Smoke and Vape. “In the past, we’ve had to keep things under cover, be very careful on our language and all of that…. It’s just really great to be in an event like this, to be able to talk to people and spread the word.”

Williams said she’d had store items confiscated by the city back in the 1980s, and acknowledged that Anchorage still hadn’t fully embraced legalization.

On Sunday, Bruce Schulte, a board member of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, told

Bruce Schulte, Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation
Bruce Schulte, Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation

expo attendees: “The battle’s not over. Prohibitionists are still trying to shut us down.”

The Anchorage Assembly tried to do something similar. There was an ordinance introduced a week after the election — before the election results were even certified — there was an ordinance introduced to ban everything. All marijuana businesses. We came out, the industry and the community, came out really hard and really publicly against that. Ultimately, that ordinance failed by a 9-2 vote. And for those of you who weren’t paying attention, the person who introduced that ordinance, and one of the only two to vote for it, was Amy Demboski, whose bid for mayor just trainwrecked.

“Well, you know, change is hard,” Williams explained. “They think that if they say, ‘Oh, it’s okay,’ then people are going to judge them. So, they’re just kind of straddling the fence and they’re just waiting for which way the wind blows, like any smart politician would do. I’m a Republican and I’m into small government, low taxes, and this is a money maker.”

Around the corner from The Look and AK Smoke and Vape was the Alaska Green Cross, a limited liability corporation (LLC) that Adele Tara started last November. “I was told that an 83-year-old veteran was charged $400 for an ounce,” Tara told me. “So, I felt ashamed.”

She used her own strains to make medical grade marijuana, which she began giving to those who needed it through her Alaska Green Angels network. While medical marijuana has been legal in Alaska since 1998, the result of a successful voter initiative, the legislature never followed up with any legal framework. Patients approved for medical marijuana were permitted to cultivate six plants, but it was still illegal to obtain the seeds. In addition, many medical marijuana patients do not have the means to grow their own medicine and it remained illegal to buy.

Adele Tara, Alaska Green Cross.
Adele Tara, Alaska Green Cross

“I determined that my cannabis would be given for free to our seniors that are 75 years or older, to our veterans that have a 75 percent disability or more, and anyone — any Alaska resident — who has been released from the hospital in the last 48 hours,” Tara said. “And we do it free of charge.”

Tara’s associate, Angel Kristine, said that Alaska Green Cross will apply for a cultivation license when the state begins accepting them. That is expected to be about a year away.

Public service was a strong theme among vendors. Sara Williams, CEO of Midnight Sun Greenery, said her organization’s goal was to educate consumers. One way they do this is through classes offered to the public.

“Our next class is May 27,” she told me, while people buzzed around the booth looking at different informational pamphlets. “We’re housed in the valley, so we’re in Wasilla. We do our classes at the Northshore Ale House. So, that class is from 6:30 to 8:30pm, and it’s on the cannabis plants. So, indica versus sativa, different strains, what’s it made of, how can you use it, those kinds of things.”

She said they were also working on a class to teach public officials more about marijuana. Many of the expo’s attendees felt this was direly needed.

After passage of Ballot Measure 2, a time line was set in place giving the Alaska State Legislature nine months to create the legal framework supporting legal, commercial marijuana. Earlier this month, Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska) signed House Bill 123 into law, establishing a five-member marijuana control board to draft those regulations. But the legislature also flirted with four other bills pertaining to marijuana — including House Bill 59, which would have banned edibles and concentrates for a year, and Senate Bill 30, which Sen. Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) tried unsuccessfully to amend to make concentrates illegal.

Much of the defense for the prohibition on concentrates was predicated on two arguments: First, YouTube videos showing teens passing out after using them. The second: that the process of making butane hash oil extract — a marijuana concentrate that is almost purely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — is dangerous.

The former argument should be met with the reminder that YouTube does not exist to show the best exercises of judgment. The latter bears merit. Butane hash oil is extracted during a process that can include heating marijuana with a blowtorch, so that the plant material is trapped while the concentrate is not. Unfortunately, it’s a highly flammable process that has resulted in deaths across the country.

On Saturday, Randy Larson, a disabled veteran and the man behind Alaska Trim for Vets, said the

Ray Larson shows off his closed loop extraction kit.
Ray Larson shows off his closed loop extraction kit.

legislature should have relied on experts rather than YouTube.

“They haven’t had anybody go up in front of the board that’s educated, that knows what they’re doing, and that could show them a safe system,” he told me. “And that’s what they need. They need someone that knows what’s going on.”

I did not see any elected officials, at either the state or municipal level, at the trade show on either day.

Larson was there to represent Best Value Vacs, who sponsors him. He sells closed loop extraction kits that run about $1400. Pointing to one of the chambers, he showed where the butane filters through and is returned, so users don’t lose their butane when extracting the hash oil.

“There’s no chance [of an explosion],” he said. “It’s very safe.”

Alaska Trim for Vets takes donations of marijuana trim and buds and turns it into medical-grade marijuana, which Larson distributes to veterans in need. “It’s a way for me to give back,” he told me.

The Best Weed in Alaska

"Radical" Russ Belville showing off a Cannabis Classic Award
“Radical” Russ Belville showing off a Cannabis Classic Award

The final spectacle during the two day event was the awards ceremony, crowning those growers who had produced the best marijuana products in the state. Competitors turned in their samples on April 10. “We turned around and in ten days we gave our dry flower judges 45 grams of dry flour to judge in a three week period,” event organizer Cory Wray said. “And they all came through for us big time.”

The MC for the awards ceremony was “Radical” Russ Belville, Portland-based marijuana advocate and host of the Russ Belville Show on 420 radio. Belville told Sunday’s crowd that he’s attended hundreds of similar events and that Alaska’s first annual Northwest Cannabis Classic stacked up with the best of them.

“Sometimes, when I travel around, they ask me, ‘Well, where do they have the best weed in the world? Who grows the best weed in the world?’ And I always turn back to them and I say, ‘Well, if you’re doing it right, you are,'” Belville told a packed room on the third floor of the Dena’ina. “And I’ve had the chance to sample and, uh, you’re doing it right. Thank you!”

Awards were presented for different types of marijuana product. The first was for the best sativa. Sativa is one of the two major types of cannabis plants and has a high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to cannabidiol (CBD) ratio, which offers a more energetic high. “I write and talk for a living, so I’ve got to stay awake and creative, so sativa’s my thing,” Belville explained.

“Thunderfuck” took first place honors for best sativa. Grower Brandon Gomez (also known as “Alaskan

Brandon Gomez, Best Sativa award winner
Brandon Gomez, Best Sativa award winner

Grower”) kept his remarks brief: “Well, I need a better job. So, I mean, qualifications, um, I think we should smoke more weed. Like, now. I’m, like, barely high and it sucks.”

The next award was for edibles — marijuana used in products like cookies, brownies, candies, etc. — which have taken the market by both storm and no shortage of controversy. Opponents of legalization in Alaska objected that they are often marketed to children and can come in very high doses, and continue lobbying against them being included in retail stores. “If you’re new to this stuff,” Belville cautioned, “start slow. Use just a little bit, wait 45 minutes, and chill.”

Derek Harry of Baked Alaska took top honors for edibles, with the judges offering high praise of his truffles. Harry also won third place in the same category for his cupcakes.

Best Indica was the third award handed out Sunday afternoon. Indica is the other major type of marijuana plant, which Belville joked (well, half-joked) roughly translates to “in-da-couch.” It has a high CBD to THC ratio, giving users a strong and relaxing body high. The best indica in the state, according to the judges, was “Orange Juice” by Evan Schlosberg and Matanuska Thunder Seeds.

(Call me, Evan.)

Evan Schlosberg, winner of Best Indica and Best Hybrid
Evan Schlosberg, winner of Best Indica and Best Hybrid

The winner of best concentrates in Alaska was “Tangerine Diesel,” made by Justin Roland and Dream Green Farms.

“Let’s keep this momentum going, let’s keep improving, and let’s get high!” Roland told the crowd.

The final award of the evening was for best hybrid — strains of marijuana that contain both indica and sativa blends. Once again, Schlosberg and Alaska Thunder Seeds had a winner with their “Berry Breath.” Schlosberg said that they’d be competing next in upcoming competitions in Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington. “This is just an experiment gone right,” he said. “Hopefully more of these to come from Alaska Thunder Seeds.”

Both days enjoyed large crowds, with estimates placing attendance well over a thousand. The atmosphere was universally upbeat, and showed a large community of growers that had, until legalization, remained in the shadows. They seemed quite pleased to step into the light.

The Northwest Cannabis Classic plans to become an annual event, meaning more and bigger festivities in years to come.

“I’ve been to Amsterdam, I’ve been to other places in the world, and it’s just really great to see that it could happen here,” Jill Williams told me with a big grin, adding that she hoped Anchorage could become a tourist destination for marijuana enthusiasts. “And it’s happening.”

John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.

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