Buds and bugs: cannabis grow inspections underway

  • Greatland Ganja owner Leif Abel displays fledgling cannabis clones for Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office officer Joe Bankowski (background) to tally on the state’s tracking system, METRC. Photo/DJ Summers/AJOC
  • Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office enforcement officer Joe Miller uses a METRC reader to count vegetative plants in one of Greatland Ganja’s outdoor greenhouses. Photo/DJ Summers/AJOC
  • Cannabis clones sit on a rack in Greatland Ganja’s Kasilof farm. After growing to the required size, the plants will be moved from the indoor grow room to an outdoor greenhouse. Each carries a tag that registers the plant’s type and the overall quantity of plants in the facility. Photo/DJ Summers/AJOC
  • Four outdoor greenhouses totaling 4,800 square feet of grow space line the back of Greatland Ganja’s operation. With the long summer light causing quick growth, owner Leif Abel worried enforcement officers might not have looked kindly on plants over 18 inches. Photo/DJ Summers/AJOC

KASILOF — On July 28, Kasilof’s Greatland Ganja became the second of 47 approved cultivation facilities in Alaska to pass inspection and receive its full license despite glitchy tracking software and a worry over plant height limits.

The first, Fairbanks’ Pakalolo Supply Co., passed inspection earlier in July.

Before commercial cannabis licensees receive their final approval, each has a visit from Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office enforcement officers. Officers check to make sure facilities are up to specifications outlined in the Marijuana Control Board’s regulations for security and inventory.

Greatland Ganja passed the inspection with only a few minor hiccups.

Apart from a needed security tune-up and snags in the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office inventory tracking software, enforcement officers’ only criticism was to tease owner Leif Abel for “slacking” in a greenhouse with fewer cannabis plants than the others. The officers also gave some slack for a preponderance of plants over the 18-inch height guidance discussed by the Marijuana Control Board in an emergency meeting on July 12.

Leif Abel, owner and operator of Greatland Ganja alongside brother Arthur Abel and their father Seymour, grumbled about the state’s cannabis tracking software but said the enforcement officers met his expectations for professionalism.

“I think the state’s responding very reasonably and treating us like any other business,” Abel said.

Enforcement officer Joe Bankowski recognized the glitches, but said they are only part and parcel of the new partnership between regulations and a formerly illegal activity.

“There’s a big learning curve here for everybody,” said Bankowski.

The inspection, administered by AMCO officers Bankowski, Joe Hamilton, and Scott Starr, took just less than three hours from start to finish and was divided into two distinct enforcement focuses. Officers either counted plants with the state’s tracking system or monitored building codes and regulations with an especially sharp eye for security-related items.

Security requirements in Marijuana Control Board regulations require a heavy investment for cannabis businesses. Cultivation operations must be out of the public view with extensive video monitoring and storage capacity, along with a coterie of requirements for door and window alarms, signs pointing out restricted access areas within the facility, and commercial grade locks.

The officers spent the inspection’s first hour checking security requirements and found only one problem area.

Greatland Ganja’s facility sits back from the Sterling Highway surrounded by a six-foot security fence peppered with signs cautioning that the building is heavily monitored. From a central control room inside, a flat screen television hooks into each of the state’s required high-resolution security cameras and stores the visuals in a 24-terrabyte unit for the required 40 days.

The cameras covered virtually every nook and cranny of the operation with enough resolution to make out a person’s features within 20 feet, except for a blind spot made by an incubation room’s cannabis-stuffed growing racks. The officers made a note of the blind spot and gave Abel a week to install a new camera from the stockpile he’d bought in case he needed such additions.

Potentially, explained Bankowski later, enforcement officers can issue two kinds of citation: and advisory notice, or a notice of violation.

The difference, he said, concerns the severity of the violation and the adherence to regulatory intent.

A willful disregard for an enforcement officer’s directions or for regulation — Bankowski used the example of a failure to install a new camera in the Abels’ incubator room, or having untagged plants — will receive a notice of violation.

An advisory notice is the Alaska cannabis equivalent to a “fix-it ticket,” and gives a time frame to correct simple oversights. Officers give a time frame in which to correct the problem and require some proof of its completion.

The bulk of the inspection’s remaining two hours was spent tallying up plants.

The State of Alaska entered into a contract with Franwell, a Florida-based company, to provide cannabis-tracking services. Franwell’s technology, METRC, is already in use for the same purpose in both Colorado and Oregon.

As a piece of equipment, the METRC gun resembles a graphing calculator glued to a Glock, much the same as the inventory controls Franwell has produced since 1993 for retail operations.

Enforcement officers point the gun at the metal tags required on each plant and the software matches the plant to the strain and quantity the growers entered into the system prior to inspection.

Franwell’s system is still rather buggy, as METRC developers have to craft an entirely new system for Alaska.

“The program is probably a little bit like Healthcare.gov,” said Arthur Abel. “They’re probably a little overburdened and under budgeted and behind schedule, so they’re having to fix things as they go along.”

Cultivators still have no way to enter either seeds or waste into the system, an issue for cultivators who must trim regularly to keep crops viable.

The Abels keep detailed physical records of seeds, waste, and growing plants in the meantime, which enforcement officers consulted during the inspection.

The METRC gun read through the facility’s metal walls into adjoining rooms at one point.

Several times during the walkthrough, METRC didn’t correctly populate with the plants Greatland Ganja had registered on its shelves.

At one point, Bankowski had to place a call to METRC support to resolve the issue.

By the inspection’s end, the issues were fixed and enforcement officers encountered no untagged or plants unaccounted for.

Abel feared the enforcement officers would take a more critical eye to the plants in Greatland Ganja’s outdoor greenhouses, and was pleased they recognized the spirit of the law behind the Marijuana Control Board’s 18-inch height guidance for pre-inspection plants.

Previously, the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office and the Alaska Marijuana Control Board issued guidance that cultivators may have an unlimited number of tagged clones on premise, but that they must be within a 6- to 18-inch height range to prove they’d been obtained and tagged after June 9, when the board began approving licenses.

“I was a little bit nervous when they went out into the greenhouse,” Abel said, “because those plants have been in the sun, and they’re a little more than 18 inches tall.

“So I’m really glad that they were reasonable and understand that this is agriculture. In the summer you have to grow.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].


08/03/2016 - 1:23pm