Pubdate: Fri, 12 Jun 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Zaz Hollander


WASILLA -- Residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, considered 
Alaska's cannabis-growing capital, may see a commercial marijuana ban 
on the ballot this year.

Backers of at least two voter initiatives want local ballots in 
October to include an option to prohibit marijuana businesses such as 
grow operations, testing labs and retail dispensaries except those 
involving industrial hemp.

The borough mayor is one of several initiative sponsors behind the 
push to ban "cannabusiness" at the voting box, even as a borough 
committee appointed by the mayor himself starts work on local regulations.

Alaska voters last year legalized recreational marijuana. Possession 
and cultivation of small amounts of pot are legal now, but Mat-Su and 
other local governments are still developing regulations for land 
use, taxation and other aspects of commercial operations, which will 
become legal statewide in May 2016 when permits for marijuana 
businesses are expected to be granted.

The Valley, with its rural neighborhoods and agricultural tradition 
dating back to a New Deal farm colony, is home to a significant 
portion of the state's illicit marijuana grow operations.

Backers of legal sales here say it's time to bring that widespread 
black-market industry into the light and drum up new tax revenues for 
a cash-strapped, growing borough now leaning on property tax dollars 
to pay for essential services.

Opponents point to the fact that borough voters rejected last year's 
marijuana initiative -- by a single-digit margin, with pockets of 
support in places like Palmer, Houston, and Talkeetna -- and say 
legal sales would be bad for the community.

Right now, the only officially certified marijuana sales ban 
initiative effort would apply to borough voters outside the cities of 
Palmer, Wasilla and Houston. A separate initiative petition to ban 
sales in Palmer remained under review at the clerk's office this 
week. Initiatives are rumored to be in the works for Wasilla and 
Houston, but clerks in both cities hadn't seen any paperwork as of Thursday.

This week, backers of the borough-level initiative started gathering 
the 1,098 signatures necessary to get on October's ballot.

The sponsors are Daniel Hamm, president of the Alaskan Republican 
Assembly (a group that considers itself the "Republican wing of the 
Republican Party"), and fellow Republican Assembly officer Sally 
Pollen. Hamm didn't return a call for comment for this story.

Pollen said the initiative reflects a belief that borough leaders 
shouldn't endorse legal pot sales.

"I'm sure the black market is alive and well," she said. "But I don't 
think it's right for a city or for the government to sanction 
something like that. ... Just because it's made inroads and people 
are actually doing it, I don't feel it's healthy for the community to 
say it's OK."

In Palmer, the alternate sponsor of the initiative is Borough Mayor 
Larry DeVilbiss, a well-known Valley Republican running for 
re-election to his nonpartisan position.

DeVilbiss on Wednesday addressed the borough's Marijuana Advisory 
Committee, the 17-member group the mayor appointed this year to 
advise the Assembly on future pot regulations.

DeVilbiss urged the group to carry on with its work despite the 
looming anti-pot ballot questions.

"But those of you that hate me for cooperating with the initiative 
process should gear up to try and charm another 5 percent of our 
voters," he said.

Several members of the committee protested the borough-level 
initiative as negating the work the mayor instructed them to do.

"I find it very disheartening and dismaying that basically we're 
being told by the mayor of the borough that this committee has no 
meaning because their intention is to shut down any business," said 
committee member Savon Duchein of Palmer.

Nonetheless, the group overwhelmingly voted down a motion to send a 
letter opposing the voter initiative.

It's doesn't appear DeVilbiss will have to recuse himself from future 
marijuana regulation discussions, though borough attorney Nick 
Spiropoulos said in an email that he couldn't provide an opinion on 
the matter. The mayor earlier this year unsuccessfully tried to get 
the Assembly to put commercial operations on the ballot.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough in February voted down a proposed 
marijuana farm ban. North Pole this month opted not to ban cannabis 
businesses. The Fairbanks North Star Borough is developing zoning 
rules for commercial marijuana operations.

The Mat-Su is known, at least anecdotally, as the state's most 
productive marijuana-growing region, though illicit commercial 
growers also populate the Kenai Peninsula, the outskirts of Fairbanks 
and North Pole, and parts of Anchorage. There's little hard data on 
the extent of the black market here, however.

Sara Williams, the chair of the borough advisory committee, estimates 
there are 300 to 400 commercial-scale growers in the Mat-Su. Williams 
serves as CEO of Midnight Greenery, a Wasilla-area company with plans 
for a marijuana grow warehouse, distribution network and dispensary 
once retail operations become legal on the state level next year.

"We come across people that make hundreds of thousands a year. 
They're not paying taxes, right? It's all cash," she said in a phone 
interview. "It's not that the need isn't there, it's not that the 
desire isn't there."

If the initiatives make it to the ballot as expected and voters 
approve, Midnight Greenery will have to find another place to do 
business, she said.

One option could be Anderson, a Denali Borough city of about 350 
residents, 75 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Mayor Samantha Thompson 
said she approached Williams about locating a marijuana warehouse in 
Anderson after reading about Midnight Greenery's business plans in a 
newspaper article.

The state revenue-sharing dollars that fund about a third of 
Anderson's budget are about to "go down in a big way" because of the 
state fiscal situation, Thompson said.

"I contacted Sara and let her know we would be potentially interested 
in welcoming them to our community because we would be needing future 
sources of income," she said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom