COVID-19 precautions

The 49th State’s celebration of 420 was more muted than in years past thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but at least it marked the rollout of curbside pickup as state regulators seek ways to make it safer for purveyors of Alaska’s cannabis retailers.

In mid-April, the Alaska Marijuana Control Board approved a slew of regulations and enforcement changes aimed at making it safer to buy, sell and transport marijuana on both the commercial and wholesale levels. But one regulation wasn’t to be.

On May 7, the Alaska Marijuana Control Board voted 3-2 to repeal regulations that allowed businesses to transport wholesale cannabis and testing samples through third-party commercial carriers, such as airlines and marine shipping services.

The regulations were popular with the industry, allowing businesses to reduce the amount of travel they need to undertake to transport wholesale amounts of marijuana to retailers or samples to labs. Alaska Marijuana Industry Alliance President Lacey Wilcox said prior to the meeting that the regulations were working as intended to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“It’s working. This particularly emergency regulation is effective in response to COVID. People are utilizing third-party shipping and they, themselves, are avoiding going into communities where they wouldn’t otherwise need to be. It’s functioning,” she said. “If it needs to be more ambiguous, then make it more ambiguous but if you repeal it then there’s no choice left but for a human being who doesn’t need to be going to that community going to that community potentially just to drop off something as small as a three-gram sample to a lab.”

Joan Wilson, an attorney for the board, said that ultimately the regulations ran contrary to federal rules that bar airlines and marine transporters from knowingly transporting marijuana, and the regulations could potentially put airlines and marine transporters in trouble with the feds.

She told the board that she had looked at other ways to rewrite the regulations but said alternatives still raised legal issues.

“On the subject of subjection of transportation, there’s too great of a divide about transporting what is a federally illegal drug. In keeping things with our emergency regulations, we are putting the certificates of every carrier at risk. Those carriers deliver products that are necessary all throughout the state of Alaska,” she said. “This is just an area where I don’t believe the state can be taking this progressive of an act.”

She said there could be room for future discussions with the state, the feds and carriers, but until something changes on the federal front, it was too risky. She also argued that eliminating or limiting all cannabis-related travel was no longer justified because gloves, face masks and other distancing efforts are sufficient in the state’s eyes to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Board members Bruce Schulte and Nicolas Miller opposed repealing the measure. Schulte, a pilot, said he was concerned about the federal government cracking down on airlines but said he saw a need for people to be able to safely transport product between communities.

He noted, too, that most everything Alaska does when it comes to marijuana is out of line with the feds.

Board members Loren Jones, Casey Dschaak and Christopher Jaime all voted in favor of repealing the regulations. Jaime, who’s been opposed to nearly all emergency marijuana regulations, said he hopes the committee will stop spending so much time on emergency regulations, especially as the state eases its health mandates as the governor pushes to reopen the state’s economy.

Other regulations

The Alaska Marijuana Control Board also approved several other industry-facing regulations and enforcement measures in April, including the ability for wholesalers to make deliveries in a parking lot without entering a business and extending the expiration date of all handlers cards that would have expired during the public health crisis.

The most customer-facing regulation is the allowance for retailers to conduct pickups at the curbside or through a window. The changes require businesses apply for change in their operating plans with the AMCO office, covering how security would be handled for the deliveries.

Klinkhart, AMCO’s interim director, said that process has been going well, there’s been a lot of interest and that the office is doing its best to handle requests quickly. He noted, though, that specific policies for how to best protect employees and customers should be coming from public health officials.

Wilcox agreed that interest in curbside pickups has been high and that retailers and the industry as a whole are keen on being good examples of how to keep retail spaces safe. She noted that there’s ongoing confusion, though, about the requirements for masks as the state health mandates say they must be required in retail shops but doesn’t require them for essential businesses, under which many retailers have been operating.

She said it’s best to err on the side of caution, especially when the reputation of the industry and the retailer could be at risk.

“Please do the best you can to adhere to the health mandates even if you feel they don’t apply to you,’ she said. “If it were me, I would be erring on the side of caution and recommend that they wear face protection, that’s really the big one. … I’m a little sensitive to the liability. I don’t want to hear of a person in a community testing positive and the investigation traces them back to a marijuana retail stores.”

Matt Buxton is a freelance writer in Anchorage. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.

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