Homer cannabis industry moving slowly

In the 18 months since Alaska started the licensing process for legal, commercial cannabis, only three Homer area licenses have been issued. All are for cultivation facilities and outside city limits and in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. If a retail pot shop goes as planned, though, the city of Homer could see its first commercial enterprise by the holidays.

Uncle Herb’s, a retail store on Ocean Drive owned by a former Homer resident now living in Anchorage, Lloyd Stiassny, has a completed application up for consideration by the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office Board at its September meeting. The city of Homer also has received Stiassny’s application for review. If approved by both official groups, the next step would be inspection by state officials. Uncle Herb’s would be in a building that Stiassny owns at 1213 Ocean Drive near Douglas Street and next to the Homer Farmers Market.

Stiassny said he still needs to remodel the proposed retail space now rented by a bear viewing company.

“I didn’t want to be presumptuous,” he said. “I didn’t want to get going too far and get ahead of myself before we had the board’s OK.”

Homer zoning code prohibits commercial cannabis facilities near schools. Homer Head Start is at the corner of Douglas Street and Ocean Drive, but Homer City Planner Rick Abboud said that as a pre-school Head Start does not meet the city’s definition of a school as a primary or secondary school.

Another lower Kenai Peninsula retail store, Alaskan Cannabis Outfitters on the Sterling Highway near Green Timbers Road, is in what’s called the “delegation” status, meaning the application is complete but pending details like inspections.

When Uncle Herb’s opens, it would provide a market one local grower has been waiting for: a Homer area retail to sell his product.

“That’s one complaint I have: there are no retail outlets down here,” said Omar Gucer of Talisman Farms on Crossman Ridge. “I’d love to sell my product locally.”

Gucer has a limited cultivation facility license, meaning its grow area is under 250-square-feet. Unlike many traditional cannabis farmers who grow cloned plants inside under lights, Gucer grows his pot in a greenhouse. Many cannabis strains need specific light periods to flower, a challenge in the long, warm summers when there can be too much light. Gucer said he’s developed an autoflowering strain and is coy about how he did that.

Also growing in the area are Cannaboyd on Lowbush Avenue, a limited cultivation facility, and Hunter Greens and Purples, a larger cultivation facility. Homer Budz, also on Virginia Avenue, is in the same phase of licensing as Uncle Herb’s. Coastal Outfitters on the Old Sterling Highway, Anchor Point, is in the delegation phase. Alaska Loven It on Kachemak Drive in city limits has an application AMCO has identified as incomplete. There are nine other farms or stores that have initiated applications, the first step in the process.

With the city of Homer not allowing commercial cannabis on the Homer Spit, Stiassny’s shop on Ocean Drive offers a convenient location to the Spit and downtown tourist areas — but that’s not why Stiassny chose the spot. He just happened to own the building.

Last week, the city Cannabis Advisory Commission passed a recommendation to the Homer City Council asking it to reconsider allowing commercial cannabis on the Spit. (See story, page 1.) When AMCO started taking applications in February 2016, Stiassny said he wanted to open a Homer retail store, but at the time some city council members and former Mayor Beth Wythe had suggested banning commercial cannabis or putting the question to a vote of the people. A proposed ban in the borough outside of cities is up for a vote in the October election, but that initiative petition didn’t get sufficient signatures until after last year’s election. Homer’s hesitancy made him wait, Stiassny said.

“Then Homer started to work things out. It came back on the radar,” he said.

Stiassny said he appreciated that the council identified where the city would like to seen an industry.

“You have to be smart and be up front. Good community planning and development is essential,” he said.

If approved, Uncle Herb’s will be open seven days a week and employ maybe eight or 10 people full-time or part-time. Commercial cannabis can be a grassroots enterprise that Homer should welcome, Stiassny said.

“It’s an industry that has a strong agricultural component, a good sound retail component. It’s all Alaska. Everything that’s going to be produced and sold is here in Alaska,” he said.

One enterprise Stiassny said he also is exploring is a manufacturing facility, where cannabis can be processed into edible products.

Gucer compared a smoke-focused approach to being like going into a liquor store and only buying Everclear. Consumers want more choices, he said. He’d like to see other ways of consuming cannabis than smoking.

“Once there are more legal stores, people will go in and they have more choices of things to buy,” he said. “The products will increase and then we’ll be off to the races.”

Gucer said he got the idea of growing commercially when a friend got lung cancer and wanted cannabis for the pain. She had never smoked weed and didn’t know where to get it.

“That’s what got me into it, for people who want organic, outdoor marijuana for edibles,” he said.

Figuring out how to grow cannabis outdoors and with organic soils free of pesticides has been a challenge, Gucer said.

“I’m learning as I go,” he said. “I have way more questions than answers.”

The borough vote on banning commercial cannabis has created a lot of economic uncertainty, Gucer said.

“Who would invest their money in something when there’s an initiative on the ballot to make it illegal?” he asked. “Who would open a retail shop? Every business requires certainty.”

Still, Gucer said he’s bullish on an expanding commercial cannabis on the lower peninsula, with more choices and products.

“I think that if it stays legal, people will work this out,” he said.

Like the tortoise and the hare, steady but slow growth in the industry eventually will drive out underground, black market cannabis growers and dealers, Gucer said.

Stiassny echoed that approach.

“As things move forward, being a little slow and cautious and letting the community adjust, I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that,” he said.

Reach Michael Armstrong at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.