As more cannabis entrepreneurs seek to open businesses all over Alaska, the Marijuana Control Board is dealing with the question of how to provide adequate process for unincorporated areas.
So far, the majority of cannabis businesses are in the urban areas of Anchorage, Wasilla/Palmer, Fairbanks or Juneau. There is a smattering in smaller urban areas like Kenai/Soldotna, Homer, Bethel, Ketchikan, Kodiak and North Pole.
But the board has granted a few licenses to businesses in communities that are small, unincorporated and aren’t even represented by a borough government.
When applicants are looking at establishing a retail, cultivation or manufacturing facility for cannabis products, there is an extensive publishing process involving running public notices in newspapers or radio stations and providing notice to a local government, which could voice objection to a license and provide a platform for the public to testify about it.
In the case of unincorporated and rural communities, there is no local government, and there may or may not be a publication of general circulation to publish a notice in.
One aspiring business in Tok has explored these problems throughout the application process. 907 Promos, a holding company, bought land in Tok with the intention of opening a retail shop called “Tokin Up,” but has run into snags that have held it up since February.
Because Tok does not have a local government, the owners had to obtain signatures from a majority of the residents within a five-mile radius of the proposed location for a petition to the Marijuana Control Board.
Tok is a spread-out community, and the most recent complete census was done nearly 10 years ago, in 2010. Initially, the applicants used data from the Alaska Department of Commerce and Community Development, but that proved to be less than precise.
Determining exactly how many people lived within the five-mile radius involved drawing a digital fence on Google Maps and dropping a pin on every single rooftop, according to a letter from Lance Christian Wells, the legal firm representing 907 Promos.
“They printed off each grid section to provide a ‘current map’ of Tok,” wrote legal assistant Jessika Smith in a letter to the board. “Applicants drove up and down every street and driveway identified from the ground, satellite, or sky, knocking on doors to gain support and collect signatures.”
Smith wrote that the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office (AMCO) had told them this process had worked in other small communities, but when they presented the map they developed as a household count, it was denied. They switched to using a mathematical model, basing a population estimate on the number of households, but it came up much higher than the census count.
When they disregarded outbuildings and abandoned residences, it came up far smaller. So the applicants and AMCO approached the state demographer for help. The Alaska Department of Labor’s demographer, Eric Sandberg, estimated that there were approximately 869 people older than 21 in the area.
The applicants also ran into snags with public notice, because Tok doesn’t have its own newspaper, Smith wrote. Radio stations either didn’t offer advertising or wouldn’t advertise for a cannabis facility because of their federal funding.
“Seemingly out of options, licensees were able to gain approval from AMCO to provide public notice through unconventional means — by mailing public notice to each and every PO Box in Tok once a week for three weeks,” Smith wrote. “Residents do not use home addresses for mailing or have mailboxes within their community, so this should have covered everyone living in or around Tok.”
Throughout the process, residents of Tok who opposed the opening of a retail facility submitted public comment to the board, with comments dating back to April. The applicants managed to gather 617 signatures as of September, with 579 needed, said AMCO Director Erika McConnell during the Marijuana Control Board’s Oct. 22 meeting. However, only 490 of those people were vetted as living within the radius and being older than 21, she said.
Johnathan Guest, one of the applicants with 907 Promos, told the board they felt confident in the community support as long as the board decided on a number of signatures they needed.
“We absolutely feel we can meet the standard if you allow us to add signatures after the vetted number,” he said.
Board member Loren Jones said it seemed unlikely the board would run into this situation again — Tok is a fairly large community for an unincorporated one without a local government.
Most unincorporated communities in the unorganized borough tend to be very small, like Naukati Bay in Southeast, where the board previously granted a limited cultivation license. Naukati Bay has a population of about 113.
The board voted to postpone the decision on the petition until its November meeting, until AMCO could verify more of the signatories’ addresses.
The topic of how to provide adequate voice to neighbors of cannabis establishments in unincorporated areas has come up before at the board. In 2017, Talkeetna’s first retail cannabis shop opened on its Main Street, with approval from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Some residents of Talkeetna, which is unincorporated, voiced opposition to it, but the borough’s code allowed it.
Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer said during the board’s discussion on legislative priorities that in addition to recognizing tribal governments as local governments for the purpose of protesting cannabis licenses, the state could consider nonprofit community associations — essentially, community organizations recognized by the state that represent the interests of unincorporated communities, receive state and federal grants, provide services or enter into contracts or agreements.
“If we had that in Tok, we would not be having this issue right now,” he said.
Other legislative priorities for the board include evaluating the current cannabis tax structure for possible reform, transporting between license types, indemnification for minors assisting in investigations, prohibiting personal solvent-based manufacturing, clarifying the personal plant cultivation limit, setting possession and transportation limits for concentrates and edibles and requiring a majority of the board to adopt regulations.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.