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In Bristol Bay, mixed reactions to prospect of legal marijuana sales

  • Author: Molly Dischner
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2016

Bristol Bay communities are preparing for Alaska's coming legal commercial marijuana industry.

Togiak got out ahead of the new industry this year when its city council voted to ban marijuana businesses there.

Others are taking a slower approach, waiting while the state finalizes its own processes.

The state began accepting license applications for marijuana businesses on Feb. 24, and in published timelines, the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office has said the earliest an application could be deemed complete is March 16. But it will take longer than that to see businesses get started. The agency has said it expects to issue cultivation and testing licenses in June, and retail store and product manufacturing licenses in September, with actual businesses opening after the licenses are awarded.

And for rural Alaska, there's an extra hurdle: Commercial marijuana has to be tested by a certified facility. Right now, there's no real workaround for transporting it from rural Alaska to hub communities that open up testing facilities.

Despite the hurdles, a few communities plan to follow Togiak's lead. As of mid-February, Manokotak and New Stuyahok were both planning to ban marijuana eventually, but had not yet taken action to do so.

New Stuyahok Mayor Randy Hastings said his town didn't want to see commercial sales or growing, and would likely ban it by city council ordinance -- but was waiting for more information from the state before proceeding.

Elsewhere in the Bay, communities can look to add regulations and zoning requirements already set by the state.

The state plans to issue six license types, ranging from retail stores to concentrate manufacturing facilities, and a possible endorsement for on-site consumption. There are requirements for each, and each license will be facility-based, so the specific site has to be approved, not just the person. But if the requirements are met, anyone interested will get a license. That's different than how the state regulates alcohol, with a limit on the number of licenses in a community.

The Bristol Bay Borough, which opposed the ballot measure legalizing marijuana, is poised to consider beginning its own regulatory process in March.

BBB Manager John Fulton said the borough will consider two resolutions at its March meeting: a one-year moratorium on marijuana businesses to give local government some time to decide what it wants to do, and one starting the process for creating its own regulations for businesses. Those could pass, or they could be tabled for a little while. If the borough does decide to develop regulations, they'll probably look to a task force to help them navigate the issue, Fulton said.

Dillingham's marijuana advisory committee will meet for the first time Feb. 24. The committee is expected to help the city decide what rules should be instituted here.

Gordon Isaacs is one of the members of the new committee, and said he's heard from others who are interested in the industry and has been learning about the state regulations.

"I thought there ought to be someone with a business mind, or business experience, on the committee, figuring out how it's going to happen in this town, if it's going to happen, and do it in a businesslike way," he said.

Not every community is making a decision yet. At a recent city council meeting, Aleknagik decided to table the issue until it saw what others are doing.

Most communities on Lake Iliamna, like Kokhanok and Igiugig, said the issue hasn't been raised yet. And in Levelock, Alexander Tallekpalek said there are just too many other projects going on for folks to dive into marijuana, including a new fish processing plant, high tunnels and tender and barge operations.

"I think the village of Levelock has a variety of projects that we're seeing," he said. "I don't think there's any interest in marijuana right now."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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