WASILLA -- Growing marijuana commercially or selling it in stores is now illegal in Wasilla despite fears that banning legitimate operations will fuel the city's already thriving black market.
The city council ended a marathon meeting Monday night with a unanimous vote in favor of an ordinance banning retail marijuana operations within city limits, including retail stores and commercial-scale grows. It also clarifies a prohibition on public consumption, saying cannabis can be consumed only on residential private property.
Alaska voters in November 2014 approved Ballot Measure 2, legalizing recreational marijuana in the state. Licenses allowing for the sale of cannabis products to adults are expected to be issued beginning in May.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is Alaska's reputed cannabis capital, widely known as a primary source of high-grade marijuana but also home to a conservative base. Most parts of Mat-Su backed legalization but pockets of voters, including those in Wasilla, rejected it.
Palmer voters approved a ban in that city last fall, but the city has yet to enact changes to municipal code to regulate marijuana operations. Houston, the borough's third city, has not moved toward a ban. Sales and cultivation remain legal in the borough outside the cities, though voters will decide on a proposed borough-wide ban later this year. An advisory committee is finalizing a cannabis conditional-use permitting process and takes up taxation at a Feb. 29 meeting.
Wasilla's ban drew a large crowd to city hall Monday night. Sixty-nine people testified at the Wasilla meeting, according to city clerk Jamie Newman. Forty-three spoke in opposition to the retail ban and 26 in support.
Wasilla officials pointed to the fact that city voters rejected legalization in the statewide vote 52 percent to 48 percent.
"The people voted no," Mayor Bert Cottle said. "They don't want sales."
Critics of the ban say that narrow margin --as low as 120 votes, according to election results for two city precincts -- didn't justify the council's anti-retail stance. They also said a ban would serve only to fuel existing illegal marijuana grows and sales while depriving the city of legitimate businesses and a new revenue source.
The ban is "very disappointing" because Wasilla could be home to maybe 10 cultivation, production or retail businesses employing as many as 100 or more people and paying approximately $500,000 in taxes, said Sara Williams, an industry advocate who chairs the borough's marijuana committee. That's based on an extrapolation of expected sales.
Voters in 2014 weighed in on decriminalization but not commercialization now that marijuana is legal, said Williams, CEO of a company called Midnight Greenery that's still finalizing its location.
Opponents of the city's ban are looking into the possibility of a getting a citizen's referendum before Wasilla voters, she said. "Instead of a widespread ban on a vote that happened 18 months ago, it should have been thrown back to voters."
It would take 100 signatures to start the process of getting a referendum on the ballot, according to Williams.
The new ordinance is effective now. Violators stand to face a $1,000 fine.
Wasilla already prohibits marijuana clubs, bars pot smoking or use that disturbs nearby residents, and bans the manufacture of edibles, extracts or concentrates for sale or personal use if using volatile or explosive gas.