By John Schroyer
The legal marijuana industry in the United States has been built by pioneers willing to risk the wrath of authorities.
That tradition is continuing in Alaska, where a retail shop owner has pushed the legal envelope by flying across her immense state with carry-ons full of marijuana inventory for her store.
She’s done so with the explicit blessing of state officials, ranging from Alaska’s Marijuana Control Office to airport police, many of whom are eager to establish a functional system under which cannabis businesspeople will be able to transport inventory. Her efforts have apparently passed muster with the Federal Aviation Administration, but the agency says it’s still looking into the airline’s role.
The ramifications of transportation policies in Alaska could ripple through the rest of the country, potentially establishing a new business paradigm for shipping marijuana products within states that have legalized either medical or recreational cannabis.
Michelle Cleaver owns Weed Dudes, a licensed marijuana retail store in the hamlet of Sitka, on Baranof Island, which is just off Alaska’s southern coast and not far from the state capital, Juneau.
She’s already done what many of her contemporaries thought impossible: She’s stocked her shelves by flying to suppliers to the north, packing bags full of flower and edibles and then flying home.
And she’s done it twice already.
“All I’m really trying to do is conduct business like a normal person,” Cleaver said. “If there was a road to my island, I would not be doing this. The next town is 200 miles north of me, or 300 miles south of me. And all I want to do is bring marijuana to the people who voted for it in our town. So that’s what I did.”
Cleaver’s flights so far
The issue facing many Alaska marijuana businesses is simultaneously simple and complex: Many places in the state are reachable only by boat or plane. But federal regulations that prohibit the transportation of controlled substances by air or sea have stymied state-legal shipping by such methods.
So Cleaver took matters into her own hands.
“What I found out is the state of Alaska owns all the airports in the state of Alaska, so as long as I’m following state law, I should be OK through airports,” Cleaver said.
She made another trip Feb. 12, flying to Fairbanks to get 3½ pounds of pre-rolled joints and about 30 pounds of edibles from the state’s only operational edibles producer.
On her return, TSA agents pulled Cleaver aside in the Fairbanks Airport and handed her over to airport police.
“I had emailed the chief of airport police, who was expecting us,” she said. “I also sent ahead my travel manifest, so they knew it was all legit.
“After (an airport police officer) inspected everything, he let me go and said, ‘Better get onto your plane.’ It was cool.”
Cleaver said she spoke with a Seattle-based FAA investigator after her first flight, even though she tried to clear her trip with the agency well beforehand. The investigator indicated Cleaver wasn’t in trouble, she said.
“From what I understand, I’ve been cleared,” Cleaver said about her first flight, adding that she has not spoken with the investigator about her February flight.
However, in an email to Marijuana Business Daily, an FAA spokesman wrote, “There is no federal aviation regulation that prohibits a passenger from bringing illegal drugs onto an aircraft. … The FAA is continuing to investigate this incident” as it relates to the airline.
The spokesman emphasized it’s a violation of federal law for owners and operators of airplanes to knowingly transport illegal narcotics, including marijuana.
Cleaver’s story is already making waves within the Alaska cannabis industry.
One other licensed business owner, who requested anonymity, has already replicated Cleaver’s process and flown product on a commercial flight for the same purpose: stocking a retail shop that’s not accessible by road. Which means at least three successful flights have been made by licensed marijuana business executives.
And insiders expect it’s going to spawn more copycats.
“Michelle and her junkets are quickly becoming the stuff of legend up here. She’s something of a folk hero, just by virtue of her own tenacity,” said Cary Carrigan, executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association.
Carrigan estimated there are between six and a dozen licensed marijuana businesses in communities that aren’t reachable by road, and there will be more as the state continues issuing more permits.
Even Juneau can be reached only by ferry, which means that if the city’s licensed MJ businesses want to purchase wholesale flower from, say, a grower in Anchorage, they’ll have to import it by plane or boat. And it looks as if flying could become the preferred choice.
“It’s going to become commonplace here. I guarantee you that. It’s going to be like going to grandma’s house with a pie,” Carrigan predicted.
Carrigan said he’s working on a protocol for flying that will lay out steps that other interested cannabis executives should take to legally fly with marijuana inventory. He hopes to have a document ready within the next month so others can follow in Cleaver’s footsteps.
But in the meantime, several already are.
“We don’t have the date yet, but I’m definitely going to do it,” said Destiny Neade, who co-owns Frozen Budz, a rec shop and infused product maker in Fairbanks. She plans to fly to Sitka with carry-ons full of inventory for Cleaver.
“I definitely think a lot of people are going to try to utilize flying. It just makes sense” because of Alaska’s expanse, Neade said.
According to Alaska’s Marijuana Control Office (AMCO) website, transporting cannabis by plane is legal as long as those involved closely follow state regulations.
For instance, anyone wanting to transport more than an ounce of flower (the state limit for personal possession) needs to be licensed by AMCO as a marijuana handler. And further detailed restrictions are outlined in an 80-page regulatory document available online, such as proper labeling and tracking for inventory packages.
Also, for example, there’s a strict limit on marijuana products, including flower and oils, being packaged in up to 5-pound bundles. But there’s no limitation on how many 5-pound packages a passenger can carry at once, Alaska Assistant Attorney General Harriet Dinegar Milks told Marijuana Business Daily.
There’s also no requirement that marijuana be taken on flights as carry-on baggage, as opposed to being checked, she said. But the risk there, she said, falls more on the airline. That means the discretion shown by people such as Cleaver makes the entire situation easier because it gives the airline and its staffers plausible deniability.
“The federal statute creates huge liability for air carriers and pilots and ground crews for shipping marijuana if they know that the marijuana is being shipped on the airline,” Milks said. “You can put a couple of 5-pound packages of marijuana that are correctly labeled in a duffel bag and carry it on and nobody would know about it.
“You would have to have with you the manifest that we require to accompany all marijuana as it’s being transported, but it wouldn’t be separately identifiable by the ground crew, which would make them liable under the federal statute.”
Alaska Airlines did not respond to a request for comment, but the FAA spokesman said the agency will be investigating whether the airline “complied with applicable law” in allowing Cleaver to board with carry-ons containing marijuana products.
An FAA regulation seems to suggest the federal agency is OK with air transportation of marijuana within a state where it’s legal. But that doesn’t mean it’s a black-and-white situation, Milks said.
“You could read it as, it’s OK to take marijuana on airplanes here,” Milks said. “However, what we’ve learned from (talking with) the FAA attorneys and the counsel for Alaska Airlines is that … the consequences are so huge for airlines that they don’t want to take a chance on relying on what could appear to be the plain meaning for (the regulation) without further clarification from the federal government.”
Instead, what Alaska Airlines and other stakeholders, including the regional FAA counsel, are hoping for is a “Cole Memo-type guidance from the Department of Transportation,” Milks said.
“Without that guidance, Alaska Airlines is reluctant to say, ‘OK, sure, you can ship marijuana as checked baggage,'” Milks said.
But that doesn’t mean Cleaver and others in the Alaska industry won’t be able to jet around the state with carry-ons containing product.
The way the system works, if a passenger with marijuana is stopped by TSA, the agency will turn that person over to local law enforcement. In Alaska, that’s typically the airport police.
“The big thing is just to do their homework. Understand the state law as it’s written, and understand that if they can contact the right offices, it’ll make things go a lot smoother,” said Chief Jesse Davis of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Police, whom Cleaver contacted well before her Dec. 30 flight to inform the agency of her plans.
Davis recommended other cannabis executives follow Cleaver’s example and communicate their plans to relevant authorities, mainly to expedite trips and reduce wait times.
But once Cleaver was through security and cleared by TSA and airport police, she said, the airlines “don’t really have any legal right, as long as you’re not endangering customers, to know what’s in your carry-on.”
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]