Michelle Cleaver travels on commercial flights with 5 pounds of cannabis in her carry on. This isn’t by choice. Cleaver lives on the island of Sitka, situated in the Pacific Ocean on the western coast of Alaska. There are no roads in or out of the island, so flying is her best option to pick up commercial cannabis for her marijuana store, Weed Dudes—one of the first in the state.
Alaska’s Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, and the state’s airports, allow cannabis to be flown for delivery within the state. This concession by state regulators came as a response to a problem unique to The Last Frontier: More than 70 percent of Alaska is not connected by road, according to the U.S. Congress.
The law allows Cleaver to either carry 5 pounds of cannabis or roughly 75 pounds of edibles, what she can fit in her carry-on luggage. She also keeps the cannabis in her possession at all times.
Cleaver was anxious about being arrested or turned away the first time she brought cannabis onto a commercial flight. While she wasn’t told “no,” she now gives the airport police an early notice of what she is transporting to facilitate her travels. Despite the advanced notice, TSA officers turn her over to the police every time she enters the airport, where she presents her documents proving that she is a state-licensed cannabis business owner and, as such, the state has given her permission to fly with her wares before she can board her flight.
“They [the police] have to enforce state law, which says me and my marijuana can continue on our merry way,” Cleaver said.
But the airlines still are under federal regulations, and that’s where problems persist.
While cannabis is legal in Alaska for recreational use, federal regulations regarding airlines have made cannabis transportation across Alaska expensive and time consuming. Cannabis currently cannot travel in cargo and must be brought into the cabin in carry-ons.
Leif Abel, co-founder of Greatland Ganja, produced the first recreational cannabis crop in Alaska. Greatland Ganja also was the first company to utilize commercial airline transportation, with Cleaver acting as the transporter.
“What happened in Alaska happened out of necessity,” Abel said. “These folks had no other way to get cannabis to their retailers—these island communities or coastal communities with zero road access. The Alaska ferry system has banned the transport along its waterways because of the U.S. Coast Guard, and so this was basically the last resort and the only way these folks [could get] product.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has put Cleaver under investigation and prohibits airlines from knowingly having cannabis on their planes. However, “there is no federal aviation regulation that prohibits a passenger from bringing illegal drugs onto an aircraft,” the FAA said in a statement. This gray area—where airlines, not individuals, are held accountable for what is brought on planes—has created months of contentious phone calls for Cleaver.
“I don’t feel like I’m breaking any laws,” Cleaver said. “The state is backing me up and allowing me to ship through the airports.” But the FAA has not changed its stance in response to Alaska’s approval of commercial cannabis transportation.
In her dealings with the FAA, Cleaver has fallen back on a statement from the Department of Justice in order to avoid court. In 2013, Deputy Attorney General of the Justice Department, James Cole, issued guidance for prosecutors regarding marijuana in the Cole Memos.
“Enforcement of state law by state and local law enforcement and regulatory bodies should remain the primary means of addressing marijuana-related activity,” the statement said.
The struggle between state law and FAA restrictions make it difficult for Alaskan cultivators to transport their product to retail shops, which have been in operation since late last year. Perhaps a sign of the industry’s infancy (Alaskan voters legalized marijuana in November 2014), the restrictions do not account for the vast size and remote communities that make it mostly impossible for the ground transportation of cannabis.
Abel, who offers free shipping and budtender training with his ground transport to urban Alaskan regions, cannot offer the same deal to the remote regions of Alaska or the same efficiency. Remotely located stores must cover the cost of the airline ticket, as well as a smaller batch of cannabis limited to the size of a personal and carry-on bag.
“The costs are probably tenfold higher this way than the highway,” Abel said.
The remaining alternative both Cleaver and Abel mentioned for reaching remote retailers was working with private pilots and planes. There is no law preventing pilots from registering as marijuana handlers, thereby allowing transportation of cannabis privately to remote Alaskan villages. Another reason air travel is preferred is because so many Alaskan villages have small airports.
“Even the one I grew up near, there were 150 people and it had a 5,000-foot runway,” Abel said about the Alaskan airport infrastructure. “So between government grants, between the military and between the postal service, almost every small community in Alaska has a decent runway.”
Doing so is considered a backup plan to airlines because of the inherent circumvention of authorities. Cleaver wants business to be “legit.”
“I could easily get pilots to fly stuff around however I want,” Cleaver said. “We would be doing it all under the radar. But the whole point of this is that marijuana has been legalized.”
The preferred method of cannabis transportation would be by cargo plane, according to Abel. The hang-up is the state requirement for a marijuana handler to accompany the product at all times. But since cargo planes cannot have passengers, it is up to the FAA to allow transportation companies to knowingly carry cannabis on their aircraft. Abel said that the best analogy for transportation of cannabis would be alcohol. Alcohol companies choose an airline carrier that contractually takes on the responsibility of controlling the shipment and limiting its access.
“It’s a very reasonable way to deal [with] it. It’s exactly how we should deal with cannabis here,” Abel said. “I’d be able to deal with any number of air cargo companies that would gladly take this service if the state would just tell them that they could.”
Neither Abel nor Cleaver expect legislation to occur rapidly, and see it likely addressed in 2018. In the meantime, both intend on working within the wink-and-nod system they have been using to transport cannabis to Alaska’s remote communities.
Abel bemoaned the fact that air transport must be done under the radar of the airlines. “Hopefully we can make this more streamlined. ... Otherwise, it’s going to be a state-by-state fight that has to be done by individual businesses willing to take the risk.”