Alaska’s first city and proclaimed “salmon capital of the world,” Ketchikan stretches its docks over the Pacific Coast to greet 1.2 million tourists annually as a portal into The Last Frontier. From the towering decks of the cruise ships that dock in summer, Ketchikan looks like a pearl embedded in a sparkling emerald crown of wilderness framed by sapphire-blue waters and cerulean skies, especially after a trip to the city’s downtown adult-use cannabis store, The Stoney Moose.
“The Stoney Moose is really the first stop for all of these people,” says owner Mark Woodward. “We’ll have a line of 50 people out the door in July and August. They want to come in the morning, get their edibles, go on their walking tours and be back on the ship by 1 p.m.”
Woodward says the stream of vacationing cruise ship passengers propelled his small retail business from $89,000 in January 2018 to averaging $250,000 a month during the tourist season. The Stoney Moose generated $1.25 million in sales from May through September in 2018. Sales data is not made public by the Alaska Marijuana Commission Office, but Woodward believes his 450-square-foot store is “definitely top three” in terms of retail revenue for the state.
“It blows the Fairbanks people away because we make so much money, but we don’t have anybody down here,” he says. “We are a tiny shop in a town with only 11,000 people.”
“Tiny” doesn’t quite convey the actual size of the sales floor as Woodward’s estimate of 450 square feet is spread across two floors, the upper half of which is not open to the public. In fact, the location is so small that Woodward only found it by chance.
By late 2015, Ketchikan’s Marijuana Advisory Committee finalized local zoning regulations that would double the state-mandated buffers around schools and community areas from 500 to 1,000 feet. Committee members agreed that Ketchikan would be a challenging target for cannabis businesses. The former planning director for the Marijuana Advisory Committee, Chris French, told the press the downtown area and docks would be “for the most part” uninhabitable for marijuana businesses.
“It was like the whole downtown area … there was nothing,” Woodward says.
The zoning map left Woodward feeling defeated. Relaxing at his kitchen table, he poured himself a glass of wine, took a drink and used a map of the downtown corridor of Ketchikan as his coaster. Glowering, he reached for another drink when he noticed a sliver of open property through the base of the wine glass. It hung just over the Ketchikan Creek on the back end of a building, just feet from the end of the zoning restrictions.
The owner of the building, who (as luck would have it) grew up in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane era, agreed to house the business, allowing Woodward to open The Stoney Moose on April 12, 2017.
“The line was out the door and around the corner of the building,” Woodward says.
While many modern cannabis retailers in the Lower 48 lament the days of back-alley dispensaries, The Stoney Moose’s hidden location, coupled with a trip through Ketchikan’s debaucherous past, only adds to the experience for many of the store’s first-time buyers.
“They feel like they are going back in time, back to the speakeasy,” Woodward says. “You’ve got to go through this alleyway and turn our corner to find our front door. When they turn the corner to walk into our store they see these giant jars of cannabis, something they’ve never seen before in their lives; the smiles on their faces and the laughter — it happens all the time.”
The original 1900s dock extends into a balcony over Ketchikan Creek. The scenic vista allows tourists to watch the native seals and schools of salmon. It also provides access to “Married Man’s Trail,” a relic of Ketchikan’s red-light district that Woodward believes tourists now use for covert consumption.
“It’s still illegal to bring products on a cruise ship,” he says. “We try to convince people to enjoy the products here in town and not one person has got a public consumption ticket in the two years that the cruise ship industry has been here.”
With just over 11,000 locals and 1.2 million visitors, the average customer at The Stoney Moose is not Alaskan.
“Our No. 1 customer is a female aged 40 to 65 who has done cannabis before but hasn’t done it in a while,” Woodward says. “Most likely that woman is from Texas or Florida. They want to split an edible with their daughter who’s in their 30s or mid-20s.”
The staff reflects that demographic; four of its five employees are women, including manager Kolbe Rose, who oversees all of the day-to-day operations.
Woodward says edibles dominate sales at the store, followed by pre-rolls and then flower, which makes sense since eating an edible is far more discreet than smoking a joint. The state has approved onsite consumption, but the city is still working out the details, Woodward says.
“We can have an outside lounge, we just have to get the city’s approval,” he says. “We think we’ll get it, but the city has said ‘no’ to us before.”
Cannabis wasn’t part of the plan for the city of Ketchikan. When the state legalized marijuana, city officials held a closed meeting and voted to ban
commercial businesses from the area. To their chagrin, the secret meeting was illegal. Instead of pushing forward with the outright ban, they opened the floor for a citywide discussion on the topic. Woodward recalls the meeting being attended by roughly 30 cannabis advocates; all but one, he says, was wearing pot leaves.
“I showed up in a suit and tie,” he says. “The city told me that they were ready to ban it that night until I showed up and told them to take a step back and see what we can do with the industry because we can make a lot of money.”
After a close vote, myriad city-specific regulations and an additional 5% marijuana tax for operators on top of the statewide tax of 6.5%, the city agreed to allow marijuana retail stores.
“The city trusted us to do it the right way and we have,” Woodward says, adding that the tax revenue has had an unexpected impact on the community.
Part of Woodward’s argument for opening cannabis retail in Ketchikan was explaining to city officials that if he could capture just 10% of the cruise ship visitors, the store would have more than 100,000 customers and a percentage of those sales would go directly back to the city.
“They were going to get rid of the homeless shelter here in Ketchikan,” he says. “We’ve turned that homeless shelter around. Now they get more money from us than they were getting from the city and it didn’t cost the city any more money.”
The Stoney Moose staff organizes impromptu work crews to help clean the streets and trails before the tourist season. Woodward also worked with the city to institute a reusable bag program that gives customers discounts for bringing in their own cannabis containers for the staff to fill and seal.
“We go through so much waste, we find that it’s easier,” Woodward says. “Alaska is such a beautiful place, we’d never want to pollute our oceans.”