Talkeetna is a tourist destination in Alaska. The small town consists of two lengthy blocks making up its Main Street, with stores lined along each end. Tourists arrive by the boatloads and busloads to meander storefronts, eat ice cream at Nagley’s General Store, or exit its back door for a cold beer at West Rib Bar and Grill. A new addition arrived in the busy little town recently and is dividing the local populace.
A new marijuana shop is causing deep divisions in this quaint little town, where hundreds of tourists leave historic guest cabins every day to roam the streets browsing art galleries and purchasing quirky souvenirs. At the opposite end of Main Street, near a famous river where tourists photograph Alaska’s biggest mountain, sits the town’s most recent addition to its tourism trade.
Rumored to be the inspiration for “Northern Exposure,” a popular television series from the 1990s, the High Expedition Co. serves as a reminder of the eclectic community’s rich mountain climbing history. The town’s first pot shop is causing a rift unlike any seen in other tourist towns scattered across this Libertarian state, where folks accepted weed long before officials legalized it.
However, as with many other marijuana-legal states, the little town of Talkeetna has concerns about inviting crime and similar evils. Some towns ban sales altogether, but here, some shop owners fear that this lone weed store could ruin the small town’s historic vibe and threaten otherwise profitable businesses, in ways that even the eight or so Main Street stores selling alcohol could never do.
Those who have built multimillion-dollar companies from the area’s steady flow of mountain climbers, who depend on Talkeetna as a strategic location to attempt Denali’s summit, seem most opposed to the High Expedition Co. and its customers. Mike Stoltz, owner of the Meandering Moose B&B, said, “I do not think he belongs in downtown Talkeetna.”
He was speaking of Joe McAneney, co-owner of the High Expedition Co., who opened shop back in mid-May. McAneney has a more positive mindset about the shop and its potential to drive tourism. He said, “The sky has not fallen on Talkeetna, the sun is shining, and this is now the most photographed shop in town.” On the store’s deck is a small wooden sign with “Cannabis Purveyors” written on it.
McAneney has been hard at work opening the store since Alaskan voters approved recreational marijuana back in 2014. Along with a partner, he purchased the cabin originally built for Ray Genet, former guide and climber from Talkeetna who died on Mount Everest in 1979. Working closely with Genet’s friends and family, he even dedicated a museum to him highlighting the town’s climbing history.
However, the association only led to greater disdain. According to McAneney, “Small towns in Alaska are harder than anywhere to break into and sort of become accepted.” His store came to life on a technicality. When the borough was drafting regulations for cannabis companies in unincorporated areas, such as Talkeetna, it forgot to include districts for special land use, like Main Street in town.
Talkeetna is too small to have a governing body of its own. There is a council of nonvoting community members whose only power is to send recommendations to borough officials approximately 75 miles away. Last spring, state regulators voted 3-2 to approve a permit for the store. Sue Deyoe, executive director of the Talkeetna Historical Society and Museum, said:
“There are people that are upset about it, but it is legal.” Opposition has been mounting ever since the issue went before state officials. Streams of residents tried unsuccessfully to oppose licensing for the store, even holding meetings as far away as Anchorage. One of the main concerns for critics is where tourists will be able to consume the weed they buy.
It is illegal to smoke marijuana publically in Alaska, and this is leading to fears that stoners would overrun the nearby river park and make it unsafe for everybody else. However, Alaska State Troopers issued no citations for public consumption of marijuana anywhere in Talkeetna between 1 April and 1 July, exactly the same as the previous year.
Despite this, many worry that Talkeetna will become lawless. The nearest trooper is an hour’s drive away. Many share the sentiments of Mike Stoltz, “What are we supposed to do? Are we going to take the law into our own hands? Duct-tape him?” Stoltz, like others, say the presence of a pot shop will destroy business in the historically rich town, where most work between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Stoltz continued to voice concern, “If we lose our tourism, we lose what Talkeetna is. We are not catering to stoner tourists. To me, that is the conflict with Joe.” Not everyone is losing sleep over the local pot shop, however. Seeing it on Talkeetna’s Main Street did not bother Jeff White at all, a 65-year old tourist from Louisville, Kentucky.
He said, “Talkeetna has the artsy feel of a tourist town in Colorado, which also has legalized marijuana. This goes with that vibe, and I think that is fine.” There is one resident standing up for Talkeetna’s weed store. Christie Stoltz admits the issue is causing division in the town, and has even shadowed her home. As the daughter of the outspoken opponent, Mike Stoltz, Christie is stuck in the middle.
She says, “I feel like it is generations, the older generation versus the younger generation.” Cannabis has never been a problem for some, and according to Deyoe, it pales in comparison to other issues threatening the town, such as last year’s controversy when the borough wanted to level eight-football fields worth of trees to build an expanded parking lot exclusively for use during summer.
Despite the Talkeetna community being at loggerheads over its local pot shop, tourists are still arriving in droves. Only now, they get to enjoy the climbing splendor of the area with some of the finest marijuana strains for the company. According to Deyoe, “I think the community council got way more letters over the parking lot than it did in reaction to the marijuana shop.”