Alaska News

Assembly member wants Anchorage to opt out of commercial marijuana

The general election results legalizing marijuana in Alaska haven't even been certified yet but one member of the Anchorage Assembly wants to make sure the municipality is out front when it comes to opting out of the measure.

Assembly member and mayoral candidate Amy Demboski of Eagle River plans to introduce an ordinance Tuesday that, if passed, would ban commercial marijuana establishments in Alaska's largest city.

The Assembly approved a resolution in September opposing Ballot Measure 2; however, there were concerns from the Assembly that it was inappropriate to issue an opinion on a ballot measure.

In an interview Monday, Demboski, who has announced she will run for mayor in 2015, said the ordinance is not a ban against the personal use of marijuana but about a "wait and see" approach to how the state decides to implement marijuana regulations.

"The city of Anchorage isn't going to be the guinea pig for commercial marijuana in Alaska," she said. "We're going to step back and see how regulations are developed and then going to make a decision to opt in or out."

Once the election is certified, Ballot Measure 2 goes into effect 90 days later. From there, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (or a marijuana control board, if created by the Legislature) has nine months to draft regulations setting up an above-board marijuana industry in the state.

Many of those regulations are related to businesses, including licensing. According to the ABC board, people interested in applying for licenses wouldn't be able to do that until February 2016, with the first licenses issued no later than May 2016.


Despite the prolonged timeline, Demboski thinks the city should operate under an abundance of caution. Too many unknowns come with the rulemaking process, she said. If the Assembly approves the ordinance opting out, then they can re-evaluate opting back in once the governing body has more information, she said.

"My belief is if you're doing something this important, you need a solid foundation before you opt in to it, and to me, the way this referendum has passed is backwards," Demboski said. "... I think we should develop regulations and then make an educated decision to opt in."

While final ballots are still being tallied, Anchorage approved Ballot Measure 2 by a slim margin, 51 percent to 49 percent. Eagle River, Chugiak and South Anchorage generally opposed the measure, while East, West, downtown and parts of Midtown Anchorage voted in favor of legalization.

Jeff Jessee, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and an opponent of Ballot Measure 2, supports Demboski's ordinance. He said it gives the industry notice that marijuana businesses would not be allowed in the municipality, saving them from potentially investing in an industry that won't come to fruition.

Jessee said the problem with the initiative -- and the problem he believes Demboski is addressing -- is that the initiative wrapped too many elements dealing with marijuana legalization into one package. He said he talked to voters who supported elements of the initiative, like decriminalizing the substance, but did not agree with the commercialization aspects -- himself included. Still, they had to vote all or nothing for the measure.

"To say people have spoken on the issue of retail and commercialization, I don't think you can say that," Jessee said.

Bruce Schulte, who advocated on behalf of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, said it was "premature and irresponsible" for the Assembly to consider opting out of the measure before the election results had even been certified.

He noted that voters approved the measure and that it makes no sense to think that opting out now with the option to reconsider it later would be good for the community.

"Opting out now or later won't produce anything beneficial," Schulte said. "What it will do is guarantee the continued black market and it will guarantee none of the positive goals of Ballot Measure 2 will be realized."

Schulte added that he's long been a supporter of Demboski but questioned what her strategy was in bringing the ordinance. He called the politicking behind the measure "suspicious," and described the strategy as near-sighted.

"It's ill-conceived, premature and impractical. There's nothing positive to gain and lot of negative to be expected."

Whether the measure gets much support on the Assembly remains to be seen. Five of the 11 Assembly members contacted by Alaska Dispatch News Monday -- Bill Evans, Tim Steele, Pete Petersen, Jennifer Johnston and Patrick Flynn -- all said the timing of the measure seemed early to them. Even if they opposed Ballot Measure 2 or would potentially consider opting out of the measure down the line, they agreed that waiting to see what regulations the state decides to implement is appropriate.

"I would want to see what the state does," said Evans. "The state has to go through its process of issuing regulations and implementing rules in practical terms. I don't think (opting in or out) is something we have to do immediately."

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Bruce Schulte as saying Amy Demboski's strategy was "far-sighted." Schulte intended to characterize the idea as "near-sighted."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.