Not much goes on in the cannabis industry in Alaska that cannabis attorney Jana Weltzin doesn’t know about.
An Alaskan native, Weltzin embodies the pioneering spirit that’s bred from growing up in a harsh environment. Born and raised in Fairbanks, a place originally inhabited by gold prospectors and known for its extreme weather, Weltzin has set her sights on another natural resource that is bringing jobs and wealth back to her home state, cannabis.
Her journey into the cannabis industry began several years ago when she left Alaska to attend law school on the sun-filled campus of Arizona State University. Working her way through college at various law firms she eventually knocked on the doors of one of Arizona’s most progressive firms, Rose Law Group in Scottdale, which is also the largest woman-owned law firm in the country.
After convincing the firm’s founder Jordan Rose, to bring her on at the associate level with minimal pay, she got her start working in emerging industries.
The firm had a particular focus on Indian law, which is to this day, an area of law Weltzin is passionate about. But they also had one of the first built out cannabis law practice group’s in the country. Weltzin took note.
Under the tutelage of Jordan Rose and Ryan Hurley, she started working in Cannabis business law and conditional use, took part in lobbying efforts to get laws changed and helped secure government approval for businesses in the region.
It became the start of what would become an adventurous journey to the forefront of cannabis law.
We spoke with Jana Weltzin this week about her journey into cannabis law and what brought her back to Alaska.
(IL): Jana, I know you started in the cannabis industry back in 2014 in Arizona. What was it that brought you back to Alaska to launch your own cannabis law firm, JDW Counsel?
(JW): Yes, in 2014 recreational marijuana was becoming legal in California and Alaska. I had to make a choice: go to California and join what was the biggest market for the cannabis industry in the country at the time (financial gain) or go back to Alaska and help shape the industry there.
My heart was set on going back to Alaska.
I was with Rose law at the time actually and they wanted me to look at California, I mean California is great and it represented a huge opportunity financially , but I want to go to Alaska and build this from the ground up. So in reality, I took a pay cut to move back here.
Also, in my role as a cannabis industry business lawyer, I help companies launch in this uncertain and challenging industry and If I’m going to ask potential clients, people who don’t know even know me to try this crazy cannabis thing and get licensed, then I should lead by example.
With that philosophy, I decided to leave Rose Law and launch my own firm in what was initially a storage closet. My clients at the time didn’t know that of course. The risk I took brought with it, great rewards and my business grew fast.
I got us into an office suite and eventually purchased an entire building here in Anchorage with a CPA company in our building. It’s really cool because we’ve created a one-stop-shop for businesses in one building.
Can you share some thoughts on Alaska and the unique economy there?
Alaska is a unique place. It’s an extreme environment and people just love to come and visit. The culture is sheer Wild West, there’s this purity of Alaska, the air, the water. In many ways it is still untouched and I love that.
One thing people don’t realize is that Anchorage is actually the most diverse city in the USA. There are whole communities of people from cultures all over that come here from Hawaii to Russia. So we have this untouched land mass and it breeds an ‘into the wild,’ adventurous mentality. 2 million tourists visit us during peak travel season and drop $2B into our economy every year.
What types of cannabis businesses and clients in Alaska do you provide legal services for?
JDW Counsel provides legal services for manufacturers, cultivation companies, retailers, landlords that have tenants in the cannabis space. The only sector we are not providing services for are testing labs. But we represent a great deal of hemp and CBD producers and manufacturers. We help cannabis business get their licenses to conduct business in their jurisdiction.
How about the culture of doing business in Alaska?
For starters, Alaska has no income tax, so that makes it an attractive place to do business. In addition to that, the state government has been supportive. We have operators who know how to run complex businesses. In other states, you’ve got operators who don’t know what they are doing so I feel we have a really strong foundation here in our state.
Any current trends you are noticing in the cannabis industry?
Yes, a few to mention here:
I see a lot of current clients who know how to run sound businesses here in Alaska collaborating and reaching out to companies in new states and new markets, creating opportunities that way.
There’s been a struggle for my clients to find quality employees.
Current events, obviously, have had a huge impact: oil prices falling and CovID-19.
The Oil prices have fallen drastically – which is a big piece of our economy. So one of the only positive cashflows here has been marijuana.
Now, due to CovID-19, our tourism industry is being hit hard. Our high travel season is from May-September which brings in $2B worth of revenue to our state. Now there’s no tourism coming in which has created a big willingness to ensure that this new vibrant line of business, cannabis, continues to flourish and generate revenue for the state.
The state government’s reaction to the pandemic has been really supportive to the cannabis industry.
At the onset of the pandemic, everything was shut down. So just last week, Alaska opened up the industry and started letting other retailers, vape shops, sporting goods stores, open back up.
When the state reopened these businesses we had a 48 hour time period in which we had to bust out plans for our clients on how to mitigate exposure to the virus. We thankfully got it done in time and honestly believe we were the first retail stores in the country to setup the plexi-glass shield at check-out counters and place these 6 foot markers in lines to help mitigate exposure.
I am really proud of our response to the crisis. We did everything from having manufacturing companies produce hand sanitizers and the dispensaries and retailers have adapted to social distancing very fast.
Any advice to entrepreneurs getting into the cannabis industry?
Take your timeline and double it. Take your budget and triple it.
You’ve got to be realistic, that’s the key to doing it right in the cannabis industry.
The reason Alaska is so strong is because we’ve taken a unified approach and been good about lobbying and to make sure these businesses maintain good reputations.
Sometimes people coming into the industry only ‘see green,’ but how are going to survive and thrive in the long-term?
There’s no get rich quick scheme that will work. It takes everything you’ve got to succeed in this industry, all of your resources, and if you don’t bring 100%, you won’t make it.