Alaska News

Proposed Mat-Su ballot measures would ban commercial marijuana operations

WASILLA -- Residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, considered Alaska's cannabis-growing capital, may see a commercial marijuana ban on the ballot this year.

Backers of at least two voter initiatives want local ballots in October to include an option to prohibit marijuana businesses such as grow operations, testing labs and retail dispensaries except those involving industrial hemp.

The borough mayor is one of several initiative sponsors behind the push to ban "cannabusiness" at the voting box, even as a borough committee appointed by the mayor himself starts work on local regulations.

Alaska voters last year legalized recreational marijuana. Possession and cultivation of small amounts of pot are legal now, but Mat-Su and other local governments are still developing regulations for land use, taxation and other aspects of commercial operations, which will become legal statewide in May 2016 when permits for marijuana businesses are expected to be granted.

The Valley, with its rural neighborhoods and agricultural tradition dating back to a New Deal farm colony, is home to a significant portion of the state's illicit marijuana grow operations.

Backers of legal sales here say it's time to bring that widespread black-market industry into the light and drum up new tax revenues for a cash-strapped, growing borough now leaning on property tax dollars to pay for essential services.

Opponents point to the fact that borough voters rejected last year's marijuana initiative -- by a single-digit margin, with pockets of support in places like Palmer, Houston, and Talkeetna -- and say legal sales would be bad for the community.


Right now, the only officially certified marijuana sales ban initiative effort would apply to borough voters outside the cities of Palmer, Wasilla and Houston. A separate initiative petition to ban sales in Palmer remained under review at the clerk's office this week. Initiatives are rumored to be in the works for Wasilla and Houston, but clerks in both cities hadn't seen any paperwork as of Thursday.

This week, backers of the borough-level initiative started gathering the 1,098 signatures necessary to get on October's ballot.

The sponsors are Daniel Hamm, president of the Alaskan Republican Assembly (a group that considers itself the "Republican wing of the Republican Party"), and fellow Republican Assembly officer Sally Pollen. Hamm didn't return a call for comment for this story.

Pollen said the initiative reflects a belief that borough leaders shouldn't endorse legal pot sales.

"I'm sure the black market is alive and well," she said. "But I don't think it's right for a city or for the government to sanction something like that. … Just because it's made inroads and people are actually doing it, I don't feel it's healthy for the community to say it's OK."

In Palmer, the alternate sponsor of the initiative is Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss, a well-known Valley Republican running for re-election to his nonpartisan position.

DeVilbiss on Wednesday addressed the borough's Marijuana Advisory Committee, the 17-member group the mayor appointed this year to advise the Assembly on future pot regulations.

DeVilbiss urged the group to carry on with its work despite the looming anti-pot ballot questions.

"But those of you that hate me for cooperating with the initiative process should gear up to try and charm another 5 percent of our voters," he said.

Several members of the committee protested the borough-level initiative as negating the work the mayor instructed them to do.

"I find it very disheartening and dismaying that basically we're being told by the mayor of the borough that this committee has no meaning because their intention is to shut down any business," said committee member Savon Duchein of Palmer.

Nonetheless, the group overwhelmingly voted down a motion to send a letter opposing the voter initiative.

It's doesn't appear DeVilbiss will have to recuse himself from future marijuana regulation discussions, though borough attorney Nick Spiropoulos said in an email that he couldn't provide an opinion on the matter. The mayor earlier this year unsuccessfully tried to get the Assembly to put commercial operations on the ballot.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough in February voted down a proposed marijuana farm ban. North Pole this month opted not to ban cannabis businesses. The Fairbanks North Star Borough is developing zoning rules for commercial marijuana operations.

The Mat-Su is known, at least anecdotally, as the state's most productive marijuana-growing region, though illicit commercial growers also populate the Kenai Peninsula, the outskirts of Fairbanks and North Pole, and parts of Anchorage. There's little hard data on the extent of the black market here, however.

Sara Williams, the chair of the borough advisory committee, estimates there are 300 to 400 commercial-scale growers in the Mat-Su. Williams serves as CEO of Midnight Greenery, a Wasilla-area company with plans for a marijuana grow warehouse, distribution network and dispensary once retail operations become legal on the state level next year.

"We come across people that make hundreds of thousands a year. They're not paying taxes, right? It's all cash," she said in a phone interview. "It's not that the need isn't there, it's not that the desire isn't there."


If the initiatives make it to the ballot as expected and voters approve, Midnight Greenery will have to find another place to do business, she said.

One option could be Anderson, a Denali Borough city of about 350 residents, 75 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Mayor Samantha Thompson said she approached Williams about locating a marijuana warehouse in Anderson after reading about Midnight Greenery's business plans in a newspaper article.

The state revenue-sharing dollars that fund about a third of Anderson's budget are about to "go down in a big way" because of the state fiscal situation, Thompson said.

"I contacted Sara and let her know we would be potentially interested in welcoming them to our community because we would be needing future sources of income," she said.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at