ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaskans two years ago approved recreational use of marijuana. That doesn’t mean they want it sold in their towns.
Voters in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a municipality just larger than the state of West Virginia, and one renowned for a potent strain of black market pot, on Tuesday will consider a ban on commercial enterprises that sell, grow or test cannabis. Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and other Alaska municipalities will put the matter to a vote next year.
Former Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss pushed for a vote to ban commercial cannabis enterprises. Recreational marijuana may have been approved statewide, he said, but not in his borough.
“I think it’s arrogant to assume that commercial marijuana should come into a community that voted against Ballot Measure 2 in the first place,” he said. “It’s very reasonable to assume that they should have a choice about commercial marijuana.”
Most people expected the Mat-Su, with its history of illegal harvests, to show support for the state measure. It did not.
“I attribute that to too much firsthand experience to marijuana addiction and dysfunction,” DeVilbiss said.
Every state that has approved recreational marijuana — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — also included an opt-out provision for municipalities, said Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group dedicated to ending marijuana prohibition. Most people think it’s OK for communities to control cannabis companies as they do alcohol outlets, Lindsey said.
“The idea is that it’s reasonable for local communities to decide what’s appropriate or not, at least when it comes to their business licenses,” he said. “Of course they can’t prohibit consumers from consuming.”
Oregon has become a patchwork of communities rejecting and embracing cannabis commerce, Lindsey said. Eastern counties largely have banned it. More populous western counties allow licenses for recreational marijuana facilities.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is Alaska’s fastest-growing region. It shares a border with Anchorage, where many borough residents commute, and where cannabis businesses are awaiting state licenses.
DeVilbiss, while soliciting signatures for a successful opt-out vote in the city of Palmer, found that people were concerned about raising children in an environment legitimizing marijuana.
“There’s no logic to how more marijuana, cheaper, is going to make raising families here any easier,” he said. It’s harmful to youngsters’ brains and a gateway to harder drugs, he said.
Opponents say DeVilbiss is repeating marijuana prohibition nonsense that has been debunked. Caleb Saunders said pot these days is seen as an exit drug that helps people get off harmful opiates.
Saunders hopes to open a marijuana retail store in the borough but stands to lose thousands if voters approve the ban. To obtain a state license, he was required to sign a lease for store space. He signed a three-year deal where he now sells marijuana accessories, but no marijuana.
Tina Smith, head of the Mat Valley Cannabis Business Association, and another prospective store owner, said the borough has an opportunity to create a new industry that generates money that will stay within the municipality.
Banning retail outlets, testing labs and growers will make the borough less safe, Saunders said. People illegally selling pot now are not checking IDs, he said.
“Who do you want providing it?” Saunders asked.
DeVilbiss acknowledged that many borough residents favor legalized pot. But he insists they don’t want sales.
“Anybody who wants marijuana here in the borough can have six plants, which is way more than enough to take care of one family, and it’s perfectly legal,” he said. “Nobody’s being deprived and this ban will not touch that.”
Anchorage resident Tim Hinterberger, a sponsor of the statewide marijuana measure, opposes bans within Alaska cities and boroughs.
“I feel lucky to live in Anchorage where we have more enlightened views,” Hinterberger said. “I can certainly appreciate that my neighbors in those places that are being affected and are frustrated by the efforts to hang onto prohibition that the rest of us are sweeping away.”
He’s happy with how the state has progressed in creating a marijuana regulatory structure, he said. Americans lived under marijuana prohibition for 80 years or so, he said, along with lies and propaganda from government.
“It’s hard for people who have lived with that for their whole lives to accept that it was wrong, that it was all a big mistake,” Hinterberger said. “It was a travesty. Lots of people’s lives were unnecessarily damaged or ruined by marijuana laws.”
DeVilbiss said his main concern is giving residents a choice of what they want in their communities.
“If they approve it, you won’t hear anything more out of me,” DeVilbiss said.