WASILLA — Residents of Alaska's reputed marijuana cultivation capital rejected a bid to outlaw commercial cannabis operations in local elections Tuesday.
A proposition to ban marijuana operations outside the cities of Palmer, Wasilla and Houston went down to defeat, according to unofficial results from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
The ban would prohibit pot businesses including cultivation, testing, production of edible products and retail sales. It exempted industrial hemp. Such a local option was a provision of Ballot Measure 2, the statewide measure Alaskans approved in 2014 that legalized recreational marijuana.
A higher-than-expected voter turnout helped defeat the measure, opponents said late Tuesday night.
"We're celebrating," said Tel White, a Wasilla business owner who created a company called M Thunderfund Inc. to oppose local marijuana bans. "I'm surprised. I feel a lot of gratitude for all the people that worked on this campaign. I think we're all really happy about the voter turnout for the Mat-Su Borough."
The early turnout estimate Tuesday night was over 23 percent — still a low number but higher than recent local elections here.
White said his campaign had predicted turnout at anywhere from 9 percent to 13 percent. Last year's turnout for the October local elections was 14 percent.
The Mat-Su, with its combination of remote properties and proximity to Anchorage, for decades has held a reputation as a pot-growing mecca. But it's also home to a fairly conservative and frequently religious voter base that's proven unfriendly to legalization.
Supporters gathered the nearly 2,000 signatures needed to put it on the ballot with the help of the Valley's active church community but did little if any public campaigning.
A boisterous sign-waving campaign marked the "No" campaign, as did a word-of-mouth push to get marijuana backers to the polls. Along with the recreational and business aspects, opponents pointed to tax revenues and the ban's potential hardship on medical marijuana users.
Bud Bass, a retired Meadow Lakes resident who still dabbles in real estate, said he knew just how he would vote Tuesday morning at his local fire station.
"I'm gonna vote no," Bass said. "They passed it as being legal, and now they're trying to put up obstructions."
But Elizabeth Lindon, who owned the now-closed Valley Feed and Seed store in Wasilla, had no doubts about voting for the ban.
"Not at all," Lindon said, leaving a polling place at a Meadow Lakes fire station. "I have too many grandkids."
Taxing the state’s new crop
Several municipalities approved new marijuana taxes Tuesday.
Voters in Mat-Su also overwhelmingly approved a 5 percent sales tax on the retail sale of marijuana and marijuana products, with an exemption of up to 3 percent for cities that already tax those items, according to unofficial results.
Voters in Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough also voted in marijuana taxes Tuesday.
Residents of several other Alaska communities faced marijuana-prohibition decisions Tuesday.
Voters in the city of North Pole approved a ban on marijuana businesses by a wide margin, albeit only 256 total votes were cast, according to unofficial election results. Unalaska voters were weighing whether to overturn a city ban on all types of marijuana businesses. That decision remained too close to call Tuesday night, according to results posted by KUCB.
Houston's voters, however, rejected a proposed ban in October 2015. That city was poised to become the only legal marijuana market in Mat-Su, had the prohibition passed.
Opponents of the ban pointed out that black-market grows already thrive here, so regulating the industry would cut down on such criminal activities.
It would also drum up an unknown but likely substantial amount of local taxes for a still-growing borough that's flat-lined spending because of scarce revenue.
Tuesday's results mark a victory for dozens of business owners hoping to make money from legal cultivation or sales in the borough. Some 60 businesses from Sutton to Talkeetna are in some stage of the state licensing process, according to a Marijuana Control Board database.
Proposition backers said they didn't do any fundraising or campaigning. Fifteen of them were named in two separate lawsuits against the initiative filed by four plaintiffs who charge the process circumvented the local land-use process. A judge denied their request to delay the vote; the larger case remains undecided.
Former Mat-Su borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss was one of the leaders of the proposition but said his main goal was just getting the question to the ballot.
DeVilbiss, contacted late Tuesday, said he wasn't tracking results and asked for an update.
"I'm glad there was a good turnout," he said, upon hearing the results. "And I'm glad people got to choose. That was my first passion."
It's likely that Valley churches will address marijuana from a different perspective now: counseling ministries already underway that address substance abuse, he said. "It's definitely going to impact them."
Also on the ballot
Voters in Mat-Su passed a more than $22 million bond for improvements to pools in Wasilla and Palmer as well as several ice rinks, a park, trails and trail bridges.
In the only contested Assembly race, incumbent Jim Sykes will apparently continue to represent his district — an area from past Sutton to the Knik River — with more than 100 votes over challenger Brian Endle.
A contested school board race pitting two incumbents against each other was within several dozen votes, with Ray Michaelson leading board president Susan Pougher by just 39 votes, according to unofficial results.