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North to Alaska (The Rush is On)

Russ Belville

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This past weekend, I made my first visit to the Last Frontier. It is my goal to campaign publicly for marijuana legalization in all 50 states and Alaska is the only one of the five legal jurisdictions I’ve never visited. Now I’m up to 21 states.

I was the guest of Cory and Kendra Wray. Cory is the director of the Alaska Cannabis Institute who invited me to present on framing marijuana reform as a civil rights issue. My presentation, as well as many others, was held on the third floor of the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage, a beautiful state-of-the-art venue.

Earlier in the year, it wasn’t even certain that the center was going to allow the event to be held. Some of the presenters were delivering education on cannabis cultivation and needed to display live cannabis plants. The event also promised to have an outdoor vapor bar. Both live plants and onsite consumption were immediately forbidden by the city. But with some intense lobbying from the Wrays, the city of Anchorage relented on the display of plants just three days before the weekend. On-site consumption remained forbidden, at least as far as anyone could see.

Anchorage blew away all my expectations for it. Being from Idaho, I figured Alaska would be somewhat the same – a cold, rural place full of white people and lousy weed. To my surprise, as I prepared for my flight out of Portland, the weather forecast showed a sunny weekend for Anchorage while Portland would be doused in rain, and both cities wouldn’t exactly be warm, but still, just hoodie weather.

Anchorage is a vibrant city of about 300,000. It’s a little like Boise, where I grew up, a flat place with a walkable downtown nestled up against some beautiful mountains, but of course the mountains here are far more majestic and the city is a port city unlike Boise. Also unlike Boise, Anchorage has a far more diverse population; one-in-three people here is non-white, while only one-in-10 is non-white in my birthplace of Boise and one-in-four in my hometown of Portland.

And the weed? What was I thinking? I found myself in the home of the legendary Alaska Thunder Fuck! Strangely, though, everyone I happened upon had every conceivable strain except that one. “Matanuska Thunder Fuck’s hard to come by anymore,” one local told me, “because the original breeder of that strain moved away some time ago, took all his genetics with him.” I couldn’t tell you if that’s true, but I didn’t care too much, as he was offering a joint of some very well-cured Jillybean at the time.

What I did happen upon was some Alaska Thunder Funk, the newest inductees to my Favorite Band Name Hall of Fame (joining Dallas’ The Effinays and the ’80s band Psychefunkapus, among others). These guys are a three-piece rock outfit – bass, drums, guitar – fronted by two rappers. I got to hang with JT, one of the two frontmen, who explained how his band came to be a rap/rock hybrid. “We’d go out to jam sessions to try to perform our rap,” he explained. “But they weren’t having none of that. So one time we got up with some metal guys who were jamming and just freestyled over that, and the crowd was loving it.”

I also got to talk with many Alaskans who were excited about the new economic opportunities in legal marijuana. One woman named Karen spoke of how she’s just returning to the world of weed following the decline of opportunities in her mainstream career. “I hadn’t smoked any weed since I was young,” she told me, “I’m in this for the business. But, whoa, the weed today? I got sooooo high…” We laughed together for a while as she said her mother advised her not to get all distracted by the gold, but instead to invest in the picks and shovels. “Wise woman,” I responded.

Another fellow I spoke with was the kind of guy Alaska was made for. He told me some long stories about his various encounters with police and government and his assertion of his Creator-given natural rights. Have you ever met one of the sovereign citizen, hyper-libertarian, I-don’t-need-a-driver’s-license, gov’t-can’t-tax-me militia types? I was well prepared, as they’re common in Idaho. I had to give him credit; he had an encyclopedic knowledge of various Supreme Court constitutional law decisions and a jailhouse lawyer’s zeal for citing code and statute. But I couldn’t help but think that at least half of the legal successes he’s chalking up to brilliant constitutional analysis are more likely judges and prosecutors just becoming annoyed with the headaches he creates. (I guess in the end if you’re not in a cage, what difference does it make?)

I also got to speak with a nice lady who was one of Alaska’s state representatives and her chief of staff. She talked about having not voted for their Question 2 legalization initiative, but now wishing to fulfill the will of the voters. She was aggravated by Marijuana Policy Project having set up an initiative without understanding fully the strange intricacies of Alaska home rule politics (it had something to do with cities versus boroughs versus municipalities, as far as I could follow). One of her concerns was the vote allowing six plants per person, while she and her colleagues were writing up rules instead to allow just 12 plants total within a single residence, regardless of how many adults live there. Ah, now I was beginning to feel like I was back in Oregon, talking to timid legislators afraid of vague, unrealized federal threats. Really, just 12 plants in a state whose Supreme Court decided (Ravin v. Alaska) in the 1970s that 24 plants are a constitutionally protected privacy right?

The one thing about Alaska I was not prepared for was sleep deprivation. It’s closing in on summer time, so at 61 degrees north latitude, the sky starts getting light at around 4:30 am. I work for myself and require no alarm clock at home; I just wake when it gets light. So this entire weekend I’ve been awake at milk-the-cows time. Then after a full day, it’s still noontime daylight out at 5:00 pm. Then it’s off to Pot Luck Events, a 420-friendly bring-your-own-bud private smoking club located at 420 W. 3rd Ave (naturally), where I slither out after numerous dabs at midnight, and there’s still the slightest tinge of sunlight over the horizon.

I guess I should be thankful it’s not winter, below freezing, snowbound with just four hours of sunlight per day, huh? Alaska, it’s been awesome, in the true sense of the word. Washington D.C. is next on my travel agenda, I’ll tell you all about it Friday.

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