Small crowd, big names at first fundraiser for anti-marijuana legalization group

Laurel Andrews

On Tuesday evening, a smattering of former and current Alaska politicians attended the first fundraising event for “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2” -- the group opposing the Nov. 4 ballot measure to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana -- bringing in about $12,000 for the anti-legalization campaign.

Roughly 50 people gathered for the fundraiser at the downtown Anchorage home of Deborah Williams, the deputy treasurer of the opposition group. The event came on the same day the Alaska Native Village CEO Association added its voice to the debate, deciding to oppose the ballot measure. 

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski spoke before the crowd, as did fellow former Gov. Bill Sheffield and Iditarod musher Mike Williams of Akiak, chairperson of Vote No on 2. All voiced concerns over the ballot measure, which they said would create new challenges in a state that already struggles with substance abuse issues.

“This initiative is extreme. This initiative is harmful,” Deborah Williams told the crowd.

State Reps. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage; and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, were among the attendees.

“I have more Republicans here than I’ve ever had at my house in my life,” Williams, the former head of the Alaska Democratic Party, joked later in the evening.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker showed up to the event later in the evening, as others began filing out.

“I’m going to vote no. It’s as simple as that,” Walker said.

Fundraising and outreach efforts

Alaska Regional Hospital gave $5,000 to the Vote No on 2 group at Tuesday’s event. All told, the fundraiser brought in $12,000, Williams said Wednesday, with more donations coming in online. 

The opposition group had filed $27,750 in prior donations, bringing total contributions up to roughly $40,000 following the fundraiser. The largest single donation thus far was from Chenega Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, which donated $25,000 in June.

Vote No on 2 lags far behind fundraising efforts of the group backing the initiative, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, which in late June spent $300,000 on television advertising space. The pro-legalization campaign had listed roughly $500,000 in contributions as of Wednesday, mostly from the national group Marijuana Policy Project.

Campaign to Regulate Marijuana spokesperson Taylor Bickford said that the broadcast rates are “extremely expensive this cycle,” given the amped-up Senate race dominating television ad time. “We’re in a landscape where it’s a bit harder to cut through the noise.”

“We’re gonna raise and spend whatever it takes to win the campaign,” Bickford reiterated Tuesday. “There’s no question that we’re in the driver’s seat.”

Williams told attendees on Tuesday “we know we’re gonna be outspent dramatically by the other side,” and noted that she had not even purchased simple outreach supplies such as lawn signs.

“But we do have buttons,” she said.

On Tuesday the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska sent out a press release chiding the opposition’s fundraising event. The release, which noted that Murkowski had received roughly $20,000 in contributions from members of the alcohol industry during his tenure as governor, also drew parallels between the regulation of alcohol and proposed regulation of marijuana.

“We’re surprised Gov. Murkowski didn't learn about the harms of prohibition from his friends in the alcohol industry,” Chris Rempert, the group's political director, said in the release. “He should explain why he supports ‘legalized, commercialized, and industrialized’ alcohol, yet opposes doing the same with a less harmful substance.”

The release also warned guests “that the host might offer them alcohol, a substance that government studies and scientific research have concluded is more harmful than marijuana to the consumer and to society.”

Williams blasted the press release, calling it an “ad hominem attack on Gov. Murkowski” that was “unwarranted and mean spirited.” No alcohol was served at the event.

Another voice joins the debate

Opponents of the measure argue that Outside industry would flood the state should recreational marijuana use become legalized. They argue that the societal and health costs, as well as costs to the state, far outweigh any potential revenues. Fear that legalized marijuana would lead to increased substance abuse issues, especially in youth, was a theme echoed among Tuesday’s attendees. “I am very, extremely worried,” Mike Williams said.

Murkowski argued for “prudence,” stating that Alaska would be better served waiting to see how legalized recreational marijuana plays out in Washington and Colorado.

Supporters of the initiative say that marijuana prohibition has failed. Recreational marijuana legalization is working in Colorado and Washington, they say. Supporters argue that legalizing recreational marijuana use would bring in hefty revenues to the state’s coffers, drive down the black market and save the state money on unnecessary incarcerations.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Native Village CEO Association on Tuesday wrote a letter in opposition of the initiative.

“Ballot measure 2 is an extreme measure that would legalize not only marijuana but would also have potent and dangerous chemical concentrates and drug-infused edibles that appeal to children,” the letter states. ANVCA is made up of nine board members and represents more than 80 village corporations, administrative manager Nichola Ruedy said.

“We felt that if Alaska was to legalize marijuana it would have a big impact on Alaska Natives in rural Alaska,” Ruedy said. “It would be harder to regulate a lot of the villages” and eliminate the local option for communities, she said, as Alaskans could freely transport marijuana and marijuana products to villages.

Bickford said Wednesday that Alaskans can already grow marijuana in their homes in any community under the 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision in Ravin v. State. Under the initiative language, communities can opt out of the sale of marijuana. 

“They’ll have a situation which is fundamentally no different than the situation we have today,” he said.