PALMER -- Tracking with the Valley's farm roots and small business spirit, entrepreneurial drive and agriculture dominated a crowded marijuana forum in Palmer on Thursday night.
At least 150 people turned out for the packed but civil work session hosted by the four mayors in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The officials told the crowd they wanted feedback as they craft local strategies from taxes to business regulations and work with legislators on statewide policy.
Many in attendance urged them to let legitimate pot businesses thrive in a fair taxation atmosphere that replaces the borough's humming black market.
The Valley is already world-renowned for its marijuana, one audience member noted. Another tossed out some big albeit unsourced numbers.
"I can't tell you how many people are growing pot here in Alaska, but judging from the quality of pot that I see, I'm going to guess that a good bit of the 20 tons of marijuana smoked in Alaska is grown right here," said Keith Searles, author of the denalismoke.com blog. "If that's the case, there's at least 1,000 people surreptitiously growing top-quality dope here in the Mat-Su."
Sarah Williams said she's the CEO of a new company called Midnight Greenery that hopes to settle in Wasilla as a "seed to sale" facility -- cultivation, production and dispensing.
Wasilla insurance agent Jason Spracher was already working the crowd in expectation of cannabis entrepreneurs springing up around the Mat-Su to handle production, manufacturing, distribution and security.
"If anybody wants any help setting up their business, please give me a call," he said, to laughter. "I know it is a business pitch, but at the same time, you guys have to think about it from a legitimate business standpoint."
A number of people told the officials they want a local preference that gives Alaskans the first crack at the state's fledgling industry growing and selling cannabis for recreational, medical and industrial markets.
"We are a state that didn't vote this in because we wanted to bring in Outside entrepreneurs," Williams said. "We wanted to grow from the inside."
She, like a number of others, pressed for a contaminant testing requirement and permitting of grow operations several months ahead of dispensaries to avoid supply bottlenecks like those in Washington state.
Some in the crowd were more cautious about the Valley's latest potential cash crop.
A number of people urged the local officials to make sure edible marijuana candies or cookies carry child warning labels. Some wondered if their jobs could be threatened by secondhand smoke that turns up in drug tests.
Yukon Tanner, a power theft investigator with Matanuska Electric Association, recommended special inspections to cut down on power theft.
"We collected as much as $278,000 from one individual who had a grow," Tanner said.
But Bruce Schulte, spokesman for the pro-initiative Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, countered that power theft should drop.
New regulations done right will "allow black market operations to move their $100 million-plus industry to a regulated legitimate business model," Schulte said.
The idea of differentiating cannabis bound for recreational and medicinal markets also came up throughout the night. Advocates for medical marijuana pressed for a lower tax rate.
Palmer counselor Susan Whitefeather said she supports lower tax rates for medical marijuana but not differentiation by chemical makeup. Research is a "moving target" on which of the five known alkaloids in marijuana have certain effects on medical patients, Whitefeather said. "Trying to be chemists and medical professionals about it isn't probably going to serve our best interests in the long term."
Several people told the mayors they were medical marijuana users but Alaska makes it almost impossible for them to get their medicine. A Houston resident said she went without it for six months last year after Alaska State Troopers seized her plants.
Several people pressed for the separation of industrial hemp into a totally different category.
"This part of the state is uniquely set up to capitalize on that commodity," Schulte said.
The Mat-Su as a whole voted down Ballot Measure 2, the initiative that legalizes marijuana for recreational use next month and retail sales next year, though voters in the cities of Palmer and Houston backed it. Voters in Wasilla didn't.
The borough Assembly will discuss a draft resolution addressing the Mat-Su stance on marijuana regulation at a regular meeting Tuesday night. Assembly member Jim Sykes has also proposed another resolution calling for the creation of a new Marijuana Advisory Committee.
Local governments like the borough will have the power to prohibit or adopt regulations governing marijuana cultivation and manufacturing facilities, as well as retail stores and testing facilities.
The initiative established only a framework for legalization, Sykes' resolution notes.
There is still a lot of uncertainty about what laws the state will roll out.
What role will unorganized boroughs play? Sykes asked the mayors Thursday night. If contaminant testing becomes law, how will growers in Tununak or Arctic Village get their product to a lab?
"I believe we do need a lot of advice," he said.