PALMER — Voters in Alaska's unofficial cannabis capital will decide this week whether Mat-Su's unincorporated areas should opt out of legal commercial marijuana sales altogether.
That's an option offered to local governments by the 2014 ballot measure that legalized recreational use in Alaska.
The Valley, with its rural neighborhoods and agricultural tradition dating back to the New Deal farm colony, is home to a significant portion of the state's illicit marijuana grow operations.
But it's possible many Valley residents don't realize that the future of legal marijuana sales is at stake in Tuesday's local elections.
Proposition backers aren't campaigning, so there's none of the usual heated back-and-forth of a hard-fought battle to drum up public attention.
Proposition opponents spent the week leading up to local elections waving signs at high-visibility corners in Wasilla and Palmer.
"It's very much a grass-roots type of thing," said Tina Smith, president of the Matanuska Valley Cannabis Business Association, as she held a "VOTE NO" sign in Palmer Thursday. "Because we know a lot of people didn't even know there was a vote on Oct. 4."
Houston could be an island
Known as "Prop B-1," the Mat-Su ballot measure seeks to ban marijuana cultivation, the manufacturing of products such as edibles, retail stores and testing facilities. It exempts industrial hemp and doesn't include the cities of Palmer, Wasilla or Houston.
The cities of Palmer and Wasilla have already opted out of legal commercial marijuana operations. Only Houston allows cannabusiness now in the borough.
A yes vote would prohibit anyone from operating a marijuana business outside the cities. A no vote leaves local laws unchanged, opening the door for state-regulated cannabis businesses.
Roughly 45 applications for marijuana licenses are now before the Marijuana Control Board. Observers say Mat-Su holds more growers than any other part of the state.
The borough Assembly enacted a temporary moratorium on commercial licenses in May based on the pending vote.
The state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office in mid-September warned Mat-Su cultivators that they may not get their license approvals on a late-October meeting agenda if the proposition fails and businesses remain legal in Mat-Su. A December meeting is more realistic "if an applicant works diligently beginning October 5," according to a letter from director Cynthia Franklin.
'Boggles my mind'
The Mat-Su is Alaska's unofficial cannabis capital, an agricultural mecca an hour from Anchorage made infamous for a marijuana strain that derives half its name from the Matanuska Valley.
The second half starts with "Thunder" and ends in a four-letter word.
Opponents of the proposition say the region's long history as a thriving black market is the prime argument for legalizing commercial operations.
Marijuana businesses are already here, they say, and should pay taxes just like everybody else, especially given the borough's continued growth and reliance on property taxes.
"We're in a deficit in this state. To say no to an industry that's going to supply jobs, pay taxes — it boggles my mind," Smith said. "We can't afford it."
The entity behind the "No" campaign is M ThunderFund Inc.
The campaign is also running TV spots featuring borough planning commission chair John Klapperich and pain-management physician Dr. Matthew Peterson.
Klapperich, who said he doesn't "consume" marijuana, supports the industry for the taxes and jobs it could bring. He said he didn't expect his role in the commercial to change his ability to weigh future marijuana decisions on the commission.
Proposition co-sponsor Larry DeVilbiss answered quickly when asked what he was doing to rally the public to ban commercial marijuana operations: "Praying."
Valley churches have been active in the opposition movement.
But proposition backers haven't posted any signs and aren't publicly campaigning, said DeVilbiss, who was borough mayor when he first announced his support for a ban. He took heat for overseeing a borough marijuana committee even as he worked to eliminate the industry.
DeVilbiss says he simply wanted to get the issue on the ballot so the people could decide.
The borough's residents voted against legalization in 2014, DeVilbiss said. Mat-Su voters rejected the marijuana initiative by a single-digit margin, with pockets of support in places like Palmer, Houston and Talkeetna.
"I'm going to be happy however it goes," he said. "I'm definitely voting yes on it, no question about it, but I am done campaigning. I could've gone that way and probably should've with all of the glitzy stuff that's going on on the no side."
Sponsors of the voter's initiative that led to the proposition said it reflected the belief that borough leaders shouldn't endorse legal pot sales. Proposition backers say legal sales will bring new crime to neighborhoods as a cash-based economy draws thieves.
DeVilbiss, asked about the effect of a commercial ban on medical marijuana users, answered two ways: The proposition would allow industrial hemp, which has "a lot of medical value." Industry advocates say that's not true.
He also said that "obviously there will be medicine available in Anchorage and Houston" — places where medical marijuana products will be sold legally.
DeVilbiss accused proposition opponents of harassment as evidenced by two lawsuits filed last month against the proposition. The suits name the borough but also a list of 15 initiative sponsors.
Lawsuit in limbo
The lawsuits filed in early September charge that the ballot proposition bypassed the local zoning process. They also say if it passes, the resulting limits on commercial properties will amount to a "taking" without due process or compensation.
The plaintiffs unsuccessfully asked a judge to take the ballot measure off Tuesday's ballot.
Instead, acting Palmer Superior Court Judge David Zwink combined the two cases and ordered the matter delayed until after the vote takes place.
"As a practical matter, absentee voting has already begun, and the electorate has been presented with the Borough's official election brochure containing the ballot measure," Zwink wrote in a Sept. 22 decision.
Mat-Su voters will decide several other borough issues on Tuesday.
Two seats are contested, one on the Assembly and the other on the School Board.
A $22 million recreational bond is also on the ballot. The bond would pay for improvements to pools in Wasilla and Palmer as well as several ice rinks, a park, trails and trail bridges. The cost to taxpayers would be a little over $42 a year per $200,000 in assessed property value.