Alaska plays host to High Times Cannabis Cup with unique, more ‘mom-and-pop’ industry

A golden chalice emblazoned with a marijuana leaf sits -- full of marijuana buds -- on a table.
The High Times Cannabis Cup (High Times)

A battle of the buds gets underway Saturday in Alaska, as High Times magazine’s Cannabis Cup competition returns to the state.

High Times bills itself as “the most globally recognized brand in cannabis,” after starting its counterculture magazine nearly 50 years ago, and says its Cannabis Cup is a continuation of the competitions held in Amsterdam starting in the 1980s.

Now, though, it’s possible to hold the competitions legally in the United States — some of them, anyway.

High Times Director of Events and Competitions Mark Kazinec says Alaska, as the second state to legalize recreational use of marijuana in 2015, with its now-robust cannabis industry, is a great place for a competition.

And as an outside observer, Kazinec says there are some unique and interesting things about the cannabis industry here.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mark Kazinec: Yeah, I think Alaska has an amazing market. It’s still developing, which is great, because the MSOs, the multi-state operators, the huge, you know, Walmarts of the cannabis industry, haven’t attacked Alaska yet. And it’s not always a bad thing, but it’s bad for the smaller growers, where they have their business, but if somebody else bigger is coming in, and they’re able to sell their cannabis to dispensaries at a cheaper price, those dispensaries will likely take them up on it, because their margins will be better. So we haven’t seen that in Alaska yet. So it’s still an awesome group of just passionate, homegrown people, small operations, mom-and-pop shops or whatever else, where they care about what’s going on. They’re keeping their operations small. It’s craft cannabis. We think this is just a great place to be, because there’s still a lot of licenses, but they actually care about it, and they’re producing their own product instead of just licensing it out to somebody else, or having some huge manufacturing operation where they can’t even do as much quality control as somebody with a smaller operation could do.

Casey Grove: You mentioned earlier, some of those big brands outside the state haven’t gotten here yet. So I have to ask, I mean, do you do you see that happening here?

MK: In most states, you’ll see that. I think every big company, MSO, or multi-state operator, wants to try to expand their operations into as many states as possible. You know, it’s just, it’s for economic reasons, and just branding reasons. But after working with some of the lawyers here in Alaska, I think that there is some good language written into the Alaska legislation about cannabis that doesn’t accept outside money. So that might be protected, at least for now, I don’t know if those regulations will change, but I think Alaska right now is protected from outside investments, outside funding. So if any of these big operators want to come out, they got to build a staff, have them live in Alaska for a while and then get a license and then be able to operate. So it’s a little bit tougher here, which I think is is pretty cool for Alaska to do.

CG: So how does this competition work? You mentioned a little bit already about the kit that folks get. And it sounds like there are different judges or sets of judges maybe for different categories, right?

MK: Yep.

CG: What do they look at? I mean, how, like, how nerdy does this get? I mean, no offense, but like, how closely are they analyzing the pot? And what do they do, beyond, you know, smoking it?

MK: Yeah, so we want people to be extremely nerdy or just very, very thorough. So the products are organized amongst nine categories. So we have sativa flower, hybrid flower, indica flower, we have vape pens as a category, concentrates as a category, then we have pre-rolls as a category and infused pre-rolls as a category, which is flower plus concentrates rolled up into, you know, a joint. And then lastly, we have two edibles categories, one for gummies and one for non-gummies, which is typically comprised of chocolates, cookies, baked goods, even capsules, sometimes, including here in Alaska. So nine categories to choose from and to judge from. So they go to the dispensary, they’re buying that judge kit and they’re judging that category. It’s going to ask them how they rank aesthetic, so how things look, one through 10, with one being least favorable, 10 being most favorable. (They’re) also judging aroma, judging taste, effects, burnability, different criteria for different categories, with comments in each of those sections. And then one last final section for just a full experience. You know, tell us about your journey. And it’s all goes back to the vendors on an anonymous fashion.

CG: Interesting. To be clear, you’re not ready to say that Alaska has the best cannabis of any state. You know, we think we’re better than everybody else.

MK: Oh, yeah. I guess we’ll see. I mean, it’s hard because it’s not federally legalized. So you can’t compare Alaska cannabis in a legal and compliant setting to California cannabis. You can’t have a judge test both in one. Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens from this competition. And then as the government, you know, potentially federally legalizes it, which I think has a lot of a lot of cons to it, a lot of pros to it as well. And then maybe we can try to do some interstate competitions where we can bring in multiple states into one location, bring that product together and make a judging sample kit from that.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.