Starting a legal cannabis grow begins with ‘immaculate conception’ of plants

The recent denial of Alaska Loven It’s license to cultivate cannabis raises a question not often discussed in Alaska’s growing marijuana industry. How do legal commercial grows get plants to begin farming pot?

“There’s a lot of confusion about it. There was a lot of confusion about it when we started,” said Leif Abel, owner of Greatland Ganja in Kasilof, the second licensed cultivation facility in Alaska and the first to go to market.

At the Jan. 22 Homer City Council meeting, council members unanimously voted to recommend denying Alaska Loven It’s standard cultivation license application after Homer Police Chief Mark Robl wrote a memo saying an officer had found 24 plants in excess of six personal use plants at the planned grow operation on Kachemak Drive. Police investigated after anAlaska Marijuana Control Office inspector passed on to police a citizen complaint of marijuana smell coming from the building. At AMCO Board meetings Jan. 24-26, the board unanimously denied the application. If approved, it would have been the first legal cannabis cultivation facility in the city of Homer.

“You have to be licensed,” said AMCO Director Erika McConnell in a phone interview last Thursday about why the board denied the Alaska Loven In application after police found 24 plants.

An applicant cannot have any marijuana plants in its planned facility before it receives a license, although applicants can have up to six personal use plants per person, or 12 maximum, in their homes. Co-owner Dan Coglianese claimed he lived in the Kachemak Drive facility. Police allowed six of the 30 plants found as personal use.

Alaska Loven It had an application ready to go to the board — and to the city council for its input — but had not passed the next step in starting to actually grow marijuana. When AMCO approves a license application, it moves the license into what’s called “active — pending inspection.” That means a cultivation facility can now have plants on the premises, but no flowering plants.

Here’s where things get fuzzy. How does a licensed facility acquire cannabis plants for a legal grow operation when before commercial licenses were granted cannabis was illegal to grow beyond personal use amounts? That’s a question Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon — the first states to fully legalize cannabis — faced.

“A lot of us joke about immaculate conception,” McConnell said. “All of the states have said we’re going to turn a blind eye to a certain number of plants, seeds and clones we know are coming from the black market.”

Under the Ravin v. Alaska Alaska Supreme Court decision, before full legalization Alaskans could grow a limited number of personal use plants in the privacy of their own homes. With the passage of Ballot Measure 2, the citizen initiative that fully legalized personal use and commercial cannabis, adults age 21 or older could grow personal use plants without any state legal repercussion. That’s where some growers get their plants: from their own personal-use plants, from medicinal marijuana plants or from friends. Also under Ballot Measure 2, an adult age 21 or older acting as a licensee can receive any number of seeds or immature plants from another adult age 21 or older.

Abel said he got his initial plants from his own personal use plants and from friends.

“We brought those strains in. We brought in a lot of strains from other cultivators,” he said.

“It’s a little big squishy,” said Omar Gucer of Talisman Farms, one of the Homer area’s first cannabis farmers to get a limited cultivation permit, about how new growers get plants. “Most people who do an indoor operation are going to start with clones. Where do you get that from? The system almost presupposes black market marijuana.”

In Gucer’s case, he has an outdoor grow and started his plants from personal-use seeds. A limited cultivation facility can have no more than 500 square feet under cultivation while a standard facility is more than 500 square feet.

In Alaska’s permitting process, when a facility gets its license but hasn’t been inspected, the farm can legally bring some marijuana plants on to the premises. First, the licensee has to have a marijuana handler permit and get access to METRC, a computerized tracking system. The grower buys METRC tags, a bar code with a zip tie. Those tags have to be on every plant when AMCO inspects the facility. McConnell said at this point cultivators can have any number of immature plants less than 18 inches tall and 12 mother plants, taller plants of any size that can be used to grow clones — a cutting from a mother plant. None of them can be flowering, or producing buds that have the highest THC content of a plant. Marijuana is most pungent when it’s flowering.

McConnell said new licensees have to time starting plants so that the smaller ones don’t get too big or flower. The flowering cycle for indoor plants can be controlled with grow lights. Generally, that means licensees shouldn’t have plants more than two weeks before inspection. Once a facility passes inspection and gets its certificate to operate, it can have as many plants as the facility allows as long as each plant has a METRC tag.

Gucer said after he called AMCO to schedule an inspection, they gave him no trouble about being there on time to visit his operation.

“They said they will get down there before they’re 18 inches tall,” he said. “I have found AMCO easy to work with. They’re generous. They want the industry to succeed. That’s their job.”

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