JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska brothers James and Giono Barrett have a dream: that some of the scores of cruise ship passengers who crowd the state capital’s streets each summer will one day use their shore excursions to kick back and light up a joint in a pot store lounge.
The Barretts own Juneau’s first marijuana retail shop and want to tap into the $260 million or so that tourists dropped in the small coastal city last year.
Regulators could decide soon whether to make that happen. At a meeting Thursday in Juneau, they will consider allowing marijuana retail stores statewide to provide separate areas of their businesses for onsite consumption.
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It’s the first time the matter has been addressed at the state level in the U.S., said Chris Lindsey, a senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project. Recreational marijuana is legal in eight states and the District of Columbia. Denver is considering licenses for marijuana social clubs.
Even if the Alaska board approves onsite consumption, don’t expect to walk into a store Friday for a sit-and-smoke. Retail stores must file applications for such a lounge, including security plans and how it would be separated from the retail operation and ventilated. Many retail shops also would need waivers for local ordinances banning smoking.
Critics fear an Amsterdam-like scene and pot use spilling from the retail stores onto streets and trails. They hope the state marijuana board puts in place restrictions to keep onsite consumption from happening.
The Barrett brothers in December opened Rainforest Farms, where Gorilla Glue — with a THC level of 23.8 percent — is their best seller. They share concerns about cruise ship passengers smoking pot in alleys or on trails but say the easy solution is giving them a place to legally smoke their weed or eat their edibles before they head back to the ship.
“We have a lot of tourists that come to Juneau — over a million every year — and a place for them to consume responsibly seems like a good thing to do,” James Barrett said.
Many of these tourists will continue on to Anchorage, where they could try more Alaska-grown weed before heading farther north.
Leah Levinton envisions an Anchorage “green light district,” where scores of tourists come on buses to try the offerings at four retail stores in the city’s Spenard neighborhood. She owns Enlighten Alaska with her brother, Evan, and their mother, Jane Stinson.
“Whether or not the state approves onsite consumption, the fact is we’re going to have plenty of people coming from outside the state, and even (from) various countries that want to check out what Alaska has to offer in terms of cannabis,” she said.
About 100 miles north of Anchorage is the quirky tourist town of Talkeetna, long rumored to be the inspiration for the community featured in the 1990s television series “Northern Exposure.”
Talkeetna is the last stop for climbers hoping to make the ascent of nearby Denali, North America’s tallest peak, and residents have carved out a cultural and historical tourism niche for tourists making their way to Denali National Park.
Joe McAneney is planning The High Expedition Co., a marijuana retail shop, in a historic cabin on main street and hopes to tie in branding with the city’s rich mountain climbing history. He anticipates the state will consider his retail license in April.
Beyond the small cabin, once used by National Park Service rangers, he and his partner are working with designers to build a unique consumption lounge attached to the retail store.
They plan to keep the store open year-round to serve locals, but that can’t be the only aim, McAneney said.
“I think anyone who really wants to succeed and set themselves apart in the Alaska market really needs to focus on tourism,” he said.
Geri McCann has been involved with tourism in Talkeetna since 1973, and she opposes having a marijuana retail store on the main drag.
She markets Talkeetna as a cultural destination, where people can come to experience historic Alaska.
“We cradle that and protect that,” she said. Her worry is that High Expedition customers will take
their joints to a nearby riverside park and light up, even though smoking pot in public is illegal.
“It’s going to change Talkeetna. Do we want that change?” McCann said.
Alaska Marijuana Control Board member Loren Jones of Juneau believes operators expecting to make good money off tourists are being unrealistic. He said so many states have legal weed now, it’s silly to think people would take a cruise to Alaska just to get pot.
“When a Disney ship comes in with families, I don’t think they’re going to be running out to consume marijuana instead of whale watching or fishing,” said Jones, adding he didn’t know how he was going to vote on onsite consumption.
Another member of the five-man regulatory board is Fairbanks resident Brandon Emmett, who has advocated for onsite consumption since voters approved marijuana in 2014.
“If this gets voted down, I think we have done a disservice to the taxpayers in Alaska because we’ve taken so much time hashing out the issue,” he said.
Back in Juneau, the Barrett brothers will apply to add a pot lounge at their store if the board approves onsite consumption. They believe their customers and the people who travel on cruise ships — mainly baby boomers — are the same demographic.
The brothers know what their patrons want: pot like Quantum Kush, which at 26.2 percent THC has the highest potency in Alaska, or no-potency weed for medicinal purposes.
“They want to get really high, or they don’t want to get high at all,” James Barrett said.