Alaska News

Anchorage hearing on marijuana ballot measure quickly grows heated

For the past two weeks, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has traveled across Alaska, hosting hearings on the ballot initiatives Alaskans will vote on in November.

One of those has been Ballot Measure 2, which would legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska for those 21 and older and regulate it in a manner similar to that of alcohol. The hearings are intended to give people a chance to ask questions of state officials and to voice their concerns.

For a crowd of about 70 people at Anchorage's Dena'ina Center Tuesday night, questions to state officials were few, but concerns -- and accusations -- about the campaigns were many.

For the Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2 campaign's presentation, Kristina Woolston's first slide showed a long list of supporters of the measure before noting that the Marijuana Policy Project's head has called Alaska just a "pawn" in a nationwide strategy to legalize marijuana.

"This (initiative) is more extreme than Colorado," she pointed out.

It was then that someone in the crowd uttered the first "bullshit." From there, the heckling never really stopped.

"I lost eight IQ points listening to that," Anchorage resident Ralph Ventimigilia said in his testimony in support of the initiative. He criticized Woolston's claim that marijuana affects brain development.


Some laughed during points of Woolston's presentation. Later, Eric Derleth, a Soldotna attorney, was the first to testify. He immediately confronted Woolston on her ownership stake in Fat Ptarmigan, an Anchorage pizzeria that also serves beer and wine.

Questions over Woolston's association with the campaign have been a constant topic. Her association with alcohol was emphasized at the hearing by former TV reporter Charlo Greene, who wore a shirt sporting her Alaska Cannabis Club logo and handed out fliers that said "Follow the money," suggesting that the "no" campaign is funded by "Big Alcohol."

Greene, building on the attention she gained from her on-air, Sunday-night resignation from KTVA News, worked the crowd. Supporters clapped and cheered as Greene made her way to the lectern to testify. One person yelled, "I love you girl!" During a break in the hearing, supporters swarmed her.

Earlier, George Hegedus, a disabled veteran who owns a downtown business, said he used to drink to excess but stopped after he developed cirrhosis of the liver. He noted that was from a substance that is recreational and legal, and he went on to call marijuana prohibition "ridiculous."

Then, as he walked back to his seat, he pointed to Greene, who was sitting in the audience.

"You're my hero!" he shouted out.

A few people were more subdued in their testimony. Wearing a "Vote No on 2" button, Melissa Bassham said she worried about the social effects of Ballot Measure 2. Pregnant, she said she told her baby that "this is the safest you'll ever be" and that she worries what will happen if the initiative passes.

"I can't regulate irresponsible people's homes," she said.

Mark Fish, libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, said he had smoked marijuana in his youth and was disturbed that young people who did the same were denied jobs.

"Why should young men or women be denied opportunities because of a mistake they made in their youth?" he asked the crowd.

Later, when a man asked them how many people had smoked marijuana, about three-fourths of the people in the room stood and cheered.

Effect on campaigns?

Derleth, the Soldotna attorney, said he didn't think the aggressive attitudes he and other "yes" backers displayed would backfire on the campaign.

"Maybe for some people, but not for those who have made up their minds," Derleth said. "We're speaking to the 10 percent that are undecided."

Deborah Williams, deputy treasurer of the Vote No on 2 Campaign, who also testified, later said this campaign has been one of the most controversial she's been involved with. But she said it's not the first time the "no" campaign has dealt with an unreceptive audience.

"This is the rudest we've ever seen Alaskans," she said, noting the ad hominem attacks in particular.

Taylor Bickford, spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, said what makes the marijuana issue unique is that people are passionate and emotional about it, regardless of which side they stand on.


"It's hard to find a public policy debate where one side (those opposing marijuana legalization) thinks the other side should be arrested, or worst," he said.

"People are frustrated with current policies and sometimes you see that manifest itself in ways that are counterproductive," Bickford said. "But these people are all coming from the same place."

Rebecca Logan, general manager of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, which voted this month to oppose the ballot measure, spoke about the organization's reason for the decision but ended her three minutes with a thought on civility.

"People are open to listening to you, but you can't scream and yell at people," she told the hecklers in the audience. "Let's have an honest dialog about this issue."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.