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Legal cannabis a growing industry in Skagway, Alaska

Alaskans voted in 2014 to legalise pot, now it's a big part of some local economies.

'Alaskans love their weed, so there is definitely a demand for it,' says the owner of a Skagway grow-op

Coop Briody and Tiffany Metz, owners and operators of Coyote and Toad's Garden. They grow 100 marijuana plants in re-purposed sea containers on their Skagway property. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

Tiffany Metz runs her hands through rows of marijuana plants she's grown with her partner, Coop Briody, in Skagway, Alaska.

"Give them some interaction — like I'm a little bird or a little mouse, out in the wilderness," said Metz, describing how she cares for the 100 plants she cultivates, in a re-purposed sea container on her property.

Briody and Metz's grow operation — named Coyote and Toad's Garden, after their childhood nicknames — has been fully operational for a year now. The business supplies five recreational cannabis store across Alaska, including one in Skagway.

"Alaskans love their weed, so there is definitely a demand for it — and we grow it," said Metz.

Marijuana plants hang to dry in Coyote and Toad's Garden grow-op. (CBC/Jackie McKay )

Alaskans voted in favour of legalization in 2014, but the state has had a complicated history with the substance. In a 1975 decision (Ravin v. State), the Alaska Supreme Court protected a person's right to privacy and allowed adults to use and keep small amounts of cannabis at home. 

Now, Alaska cultivators can apply for limited or standard licences to grow marijuana. Limited licences are cheaper and intended for small operations of 500-square-feet or less — like Coyote and Toad's Garden.

Briody and Metz feel the decision to allow Alaska growing licences for small operations was crucial in getting their business off the ground. 

In Canada, only the federal government will be able to grant commercial cannabis growing licences, but the exact process is still unclear. 

Briody and Metz hope to start turning a profit on their business this year. It took them a year to become licensed, and they've been growing plants for a year now. (CBC/Jackie McKay )

'Positive changes in culture'

One of the biggest changes Briody and Metz have noticed since legalization is the openness of the community to talking about cannabis.

"Just positive changes in culture. People are getting to know the plant more," said Metz.

"Getting to know different strains, where the plant comes from, and what works for them — because everybody is so different, so just the knowledge is being spread about these great strains."

"We couldn't have gotten this going without the community, that's for sure," said Briody. 

'We couldn't have gotten this going without the community, that's for sure,' said Briody. (CBC/Jackie McKay)

Skagway voted 75 per cent in favour of legalization. After the state enacted legislation, it was up to individual municipalities to decide whether they would to grant licences for things like recreational pot shops and grow-ops.

"We have a grow facility here, we have a dispensary, and it's quiet," said Scott Hahn, Skagway Borough Chief. "It's a good story I guess, if you're pro-marijuana."

There haven't been any changes in crime rates since legalization, according to Hahn, and municipal taxes collected from the local cannabis shop are going back into the town's operations and capital expenses.

Alaska has two kinds of growing licences for commercial growers. Limited licences are cheaper and restrict growers to 500 square feet of growing space or less. (CBC/Jackie McKay )

Hahn could not disclose how much the city is earning in marijuana-related taxes, because they are only coming from one business.

In March, Alaska collected $1.1 million in state cannabis taxes. Monthly state taxes are expected to stay well into the millions, according to Alaska Department of Labour. Marijuana is taxed at $50 an ounce when being transferred or sold between cultivators and retail shops.

"This is one of the brighter spots in our economy, and probably one of the fastest growing industries right now," said Neal Fried, a researcher with the Alaska Department of Labor. "That might change as it matures, but it's certainly not anywhere close to maturing."

Coyote and Toad's Garden sells its product to Skagway's local recreational pot shop. This is what it looks like before it is taken to Anchorage, Alaska, for testing. (CBC/Jackie McKay)

Hundreds of jobs for Alaskans

As of December, there were 530 jobs in Alaska directly related to the cannabis industry, representing about $3.9 million in payroll, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.

Fried expects there are closer to 600 jobs in the industry by now, and more expected to come. He said there are as many licences waiting for state approval as there are currently operating across Alaska.

"If that comes to fruition, we will see a continued dramatic increase in players in this industry," he said.

Marijuana is still illegal under U.S. federal law. In Alaska, the industry is regulated by state laws, and all operations and production has to be done in state, by Alaska residents.

The discrepancy between federal and state laws has caused problems for some licensed businesses.

Coop Briody started out with a couple seeds ordered online and his grow-op now has 100 plants. The product is sold to five pot shops across Alaska. (CBC/Jackie McKay )

In late March, the Steep Hill Alaska marijuana testing facility in Anchorage closed because the bank, Wells Fargo, took back a loan on the business's building after learning it was a marijuana operation.

Federal banking regulations prevent U.S. banks from knowingly working with marijuana businesses, forcing all cannabis operations in Alaska to deal strictly in cash in order to operate.  

According to state regulations, no one under the age of 21 can buy or possess cannabis. It's also illegal to consume cannabis in public spaces, or bring it across the border.

Not promoted to tourists, yet

Skagway is expecting almost 900,000 cruise ship passengers this year.

Cannabis tourism isn't something Skagway is currently looking to promote, partly because there is nowhere for visitors to legally consume the product.

Some goodies for sale at Skagway's Remedy Shoppe. Municipalities collect sales tax from recreational cannabis shops, and grow-ops pay state taxes. (CBC/Jackie McKay)

The Remedy Shoppe in Skagway was the first licensed recreational dispensary in the state, but there is nowhere for customers to legally consume products on site.

The store owners hope to eventually have a licensed backyard patio where people will be able to legally use cannabis products. The Skagway tourism office says it may reconsider promoting the industry if that happens. 

The Remedy Shoppe was the first recreational cannabis store in Alaska. (CBC/Jackie McKay )

Remedy Shoppe owner Tara Bass said her business has no specific clientele. She says she sees everyone from elderly women to middle-aged businessmen in her shop.

She says one thing legalization has clearly done is to change people's perceptions of who a typical cannabis user is.

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