Anchorage official tapped to head marijuana office, board

The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office and the Marijuana Control Board have a new director with a reputation that is softer than her predecessors but still developing.

Gov. Bill Walker appointed Muncipality of Anchorage planning official Erika McConnell as the new AMCO director on Feb. 21. Former director Cynthia Franklin resigned late last year, leaving Sara Chambers to fill the position in the interim.

McConnell will start her new job March 20.

Industry members and regulators seem to agree that McConnell’s demeanor and 14 years of experience in the Anchorage municipality will be a plus. McConnell both oversaw some aspects of alcohol licensing and wrote the city’s marijuana land use code.

Recently, McConnell has gotten high marks for being engaged with industry and personally helpful, but there remains some suspicion due to the relatively slow rollout of Anchorage’s marijuana market.

“Ms. McConnell is an exceptional fit to lead the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office,” said Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Chris Hladick in a press release. “She has over a decade of experience navigating the regulatory world, both drafting and implementing. In her time with the Municipality of Anchorage she worked closely with the AMCO staff on alcohol and marijuana matters in order to provide assistance to license applicants.”

McConnell came into the cannabis world through the Anchorage municipality, where she has works as the marijuana regulatory expert in the Office of Economic and Community Development. In one position or another, McConnell has worked for the municipality since 2003.

Board members say they’re hopeful about McConnell’s experience.

“I think they made a great choice,” said Nick Miller, who is both a member of the Marijuana Control Board and the president of the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association.

With a more bureaucratic history and temperament than Franklin, McConnell’s place on the board could have a calming effect.

“Ms. McConnell has significant experience dealing with marijuana issues,” said board member Brandon Emmett, also an industry stakeholder. “I believe she will bring a balanced and thoughtful approach to her new position as director.”

When first established, Marijuana Control Board meetings were turbulent. New industry entrants got introduced to the world of regulation, bureaucrats, attorneys and marijuana entrepreneurs without much business experience.

Former board chair Bruce Schulte, a leader of the successful ballot initiative to legalize recreational use, and Franklin had plenty of barbed exchanges, and the overall relationship between Franklin and the industry was chilly at best.

McConnell’s reputation among cannabis stakeholders has shifted as the industry has grown, but most said she has a better relationship with them than her predecessors. Some said McConnell has actively defended license applicants and taken up sides to move the process along more quickly.

“She is one of the few people in the city of Anchorage to come to the (Anchorage Cannabis Business Association) meetings,” said Jack Tobin, owner of Famer Jack’s LLC, an Anchorage cultivation facility still in development. “She does care what our perspective is. I don’t feel that Cynthia nor Sara (Chambers) cared what our perspective was. I definitely feel McConnell is an improvement…but she doesn’t have to beat much.”

During the early stages of the municipal regulatory process, many were suspicious of McConnell. Some claimed she had an obstructionist agenda and was actively trying to halt the industry’s progress.

“She was kind of anti-cannabis in the beginning,” said Justin Roland, owner of Dream Green Farms. “53 percent of us voted yes (on Ballot Measure 2), and that means 47 voted no. You could definitely tell she didn’t vote yes. I got that from a lot of people at the muni.”

Since then, that reputation has shifted and is now largely positive for McConnell. Industry attorney Jana Weltzin described the new AMCO director as “tough, fair, and honest,” and cannabis business owners have said whatever rocky first impressions McConnell gave in 2015 have largely disappeared.

“Now,” said Roland, “that is completely gone.”

McConnell’s absence from the city could potentially be a boon or a burden.

Anchorage has a poor reputation among the Alaska cannabis industry as one of the most restrictive places in the state to do business.

Anchorage has a far lower rate of state-approved active cannabis business licenses than Fairbanks, Juneau, or the Central Kenai Peninsula. Without McConnell to oversee much of the marijuana-related business in the Office of Community and Economic Development, some industry members worry that the city process could slow down from a glacial pace to a near stop.

The city’s dreaded “change of use” requirement, which plagues marijuana shops trying to get up and running, did begin in McConnell’s office.

However, Tobin, who works as a contractor, said the city was moving towards change of use requirements and similar measures independent of marijuana, and so he doesn’t lay that issue at McConnell’s feet.

Further, Tobin speculates that McConnell could help the state process by revealing city problems.

“One of the reasons I think there’s been some problems in Anchorage is that they don’t know what’s going on at the state level,” he said. “I think the state’s intent is to get us licensed. She does know what’s going on in Anchorage. They definitely don’t know what’s going on.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

02/21/2017 - 8:12pm