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As I reflect on the words I wrote for Cannabis Business Times in the Guest Column “Sleepless in Alaska” (bit.ly/5_years_later), penned as we prepared for adult-use cannabis licensing in Alaska nearly five years ago, I’m struck by the sense of change and uncertainty that we all experienced at the time. Our primary goal was “getting licensed to get over the hump” and simply start operating. At that point, we figured, there would be fewer unknowns as operations commenced.

We worked tirelessly and pushed ourselves, our teams, our resources and our very health to the brink of exhaustion. We certainly “lost” sleep at night! This sacrifice allowed us to achieve a pace and level of output that was remarkable yet unsustainable over the long term. Due to tenacity and long hours, the Greatland Ganja team became a success story of the cannabis industry. We managed a quality greenhouse and hydroponic crop in the first year and made the first sale of licensed cannabis in Alaska.

Now, with four years of licensed operating experience under my belt, I can look back and smile at the risks we took and the lessons we learned. As I sit here and take a puff of Ganjagar Gold wrapped in organic CBD-infused hemp, I can see my crew and myself digging postholes in the frozen ground in January 2016. Looking back, I can’t help but think, “Poor, idealistic, unaware little fella working frantically like there is an end in sight. What a shock he is in for!”

We were not taking a leap to a known landing zone of safety and predictability in that first year—we were jumping off into a free fall with no known landing. There was no point of “making it” where we could let our guard down. Our team had to quickly step up our game to a highly professional level at a rapid rate. On every level, from cultivation to quality control to product development and sales, we adapted swiftly to survive the competitive green-rush environment.

We have dramatically increased our accountabilities. We view ourselves as the responsible party, no matter what. It’s our responsibility to identify and operate under the regulations and know about any changes to the laws. It’s our responsibility to pay state and federal taxes, to have worker’s compensation coverage for all employees, to follow borough code and pay sales tax. Most importantly, it’s our responsibility to create a healthy and safe product for our consumers and to maintain a healthy and safe work environment for our crew. Just like other small-business owners in the U.S., we are keenly aware of our social and moral obligations.

The new normal?

I am proud to bear most of these responsibilities. Yet I see a pattern where licensed owners are always held to the highest standards, even above that of the agencies that regulate us. What strikes me is that this isn’t isolated to the cannabis industry. This is a dynamic felt by most small businesses. We are held to high standards, but no one has to answer to us. Meaning, if we make a mistake, we pay the price in the form of fines and other penalties. But if an agency makes a mistake, they say, “Oh well, sorry. We are doing the best we can.”

Perhaps this is a victory of sorts. Our biggest challenges in the cannabis industry are starting to look a lot more like any other business’s challenges. Does that mean cannabis prohibition is truly almost over? Can we go join the ranks of small business owners across the nation and petition alongside them for reasonable change?

I think the answer is “yes,” but I wonder if we are ready for what the bargaining looks like at that larger table that has not only cannabis but craft brewers, small farms, restaurants, family grocers and the like. At this larger table, the intricacies of so many differing agendas will certainly complicate things as we continue to advocate for our businesses.

We have taken our little tribes that were hiding just outside of mainstream society and thrust them full force into the modern system. But, in essence, small business owners are still just leaders of small tribes, doing our best to stand up for, defend and make fair decisions for our people. Instead of doing it on the fringe, we are now in the fray. Instead of weather, sickness, injuries, predators, bugs and the threat of prison, we now have regulators, insurers, bankers, politics, policy and the threat of prison. But it’s still only a natural environment for us to work within, respond to and help shape.

More of the same

How little has actually changed. There is no less risk now, no less uncertainty. It’s just different sets of more complex challenges. The wolves have gotten bigger, and their teeth are sharper. The one constant I see is change, and the biggest need is for perpetual learning. This environment for licensed cannabis businesses is one of the best avenues of continual growth and expansion of one’s skills and knowledge base, as there is no time to plateau. There is no “getting over the hump.” There never was. It only was an illusion of a safe place we thought was reachable. Life is not safe. Being alive is a dangerous proposition and leads to one thing. Until we reach the point at which we can no longer function, it’s our job to always push forward, always defend our tribe and continue to learn and find ways to make the safest, highest-grade cannabis products people can find. In the face of either a terrible snowstorm or a dismal political cycle, we should show the same steadfastness, the same determination.

Back in 2016, we were working hard, with an uncertain future, learning as we moved along, losing sleep. There we were growing cannabis and making a company from scratch with people who we came to think of as family. “They will make it. They have the stuff. I think,” I said back then. And here we are now. With an uncertain future, working hard, learning as we go, continuing to carve out a position in this wilderness for our tribe. How little has changed.

I ask myself: Does all of this make me sleep any better at night than I did four years ago? The answer is, “yes.” After years of practice, I now feel more battle-hardened and prepared. My arrows are sharper, my wits keener, my influence larger. I have learned to rest knowing there is always a big challenge the next day, whether it be a human resources situation or a bad gale. I am learning to live with pivoting constantly to the next evolving priority as a reality of the business. And because I see positive change occurring, no matter how incremental, I know this is the right way forward.

I still have just as many numbers in my head. Without running it by the numbers we would likely fail.

Primarily, I have the faces of the people in my mind. The faces of our retail customers, our brand partners and our consumers. The team and the relationships we have formed are why Greatland Ganja is a successful company with a full product line and the highest-end cannabis smoking products in Alaska. Our team has inspired me further and given me a greater purpose, something that indeed does make me sleep better at night.

Leif Abel is a co-founder of Greatland Ganja, LLC, on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Abel is also executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legalization.