Voters reject return to pot prohibition

  • A marijuana leaf is seen in the vegetative room at Alaska Cannabis Cultivators in Fairbanks. Kenai Peninsula and Interior voters rejected ballot measures to ban commercial cannabis operations, including retail stores and cultivation facilities, in the Oct. 3 municipal elections. (AP Photo/Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

Voters on Oct. 3 rejected propositions to ban commercial marijuana operations on the Kenai Peninsula and in Fairbanks where most of the state’s cultivation farms are located.

With 23 of 24 precincts reporting results, the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s unofficial election results show an overall majority voting against the prohibition 5,232 to 2,941 or 64 percent against and 36 percent in favor of the ban.

In Fairbanks, voters faced two ballot props that also went down in defeat.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough reported unofficial results from 40 of its 40 precincts on its Proposition 1 as 9,488 nay votes to the 4,080 in favor of the ban, margins showing overwhelming rejection of a ban at 70 percent to 30 percent in the 7,444-square mile borough.

In the City of Fairbanks, voters cast 2,912 against the ban prop and 1,313 votes in favor of it. That showed margins of 69 to 31 percent, another strong showing in support of the cannabis business operations.

Many voters on the Kenai Peninsula got a surprise when they took their first look at the ballot ticket and saw no Prop 1 listed for them to express a preference. Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said that was a reflection of the 2014 legalization of marijuana laws that went into effect.

“Each city has its own jurisdiction to decide,” Navarre said. “All the voters within the boundaries of Homer, Soldotna, Kenai, Seward and Seldovia weren’t asked that question. It just applied to areas outside the cities that are in the borough.”

The mayor said he wasn’t surprised the ballot measure nonetheless failed. The “no” vote people were well organized, he said.

“The ‘Vote Yes’ got the signatures to put the question on the ballot but then, didn’t mount a strong effort. It was a one-sided effort where the ‘Vote No’ people were able to make a case for the medical and regulatory benefits of it being legal and regulated so you know what you’re getting,” Navarre said.

Robert Mikol, whose business cultivator license was approved at the last Marijuana Control Board meeting in September, said he watched both Fairbanks propositions with some concern.

“A lot of people told me how they were going to vote – people who are not even consumers, some fairly conservative – who said they were going to vote no,” Mikol said on Oct. 4.

He had invested $50,000 to $70,000 in a grow operation that took a year of planning and two appearances before the board before he was approved.

“It would have been such a huge blow if the prop had passed. I would have had to figure something out; maybe move to Delta Junction,” Mikol said. “But now the question is settled and we see the support here.”

Cary Carrigan, president of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Alliance, said he felt education was the key particularly on the Kenai Peninsula were he felt the industry was depicted as a “boogie man.”

“That was a moving target but we really worked it, a lot of people worked extremely hard,” Carrigan said.

As votes filtered in Tuesday evening, Carrigan said he was noticing a 60-40 split against the ban community-by-community.

“I felt pretty good to see that but I wasn’t sure if that would hold,” he said.

In the end, even members of the Alaska Marijuana Control Board got involved in the proposition debates.

In Kenai, board chairman and Soldotna Chief of Police Peter Mlynark helped draft the petition and gathered petition signatures on the proposition that ended up on the borough ballot. In Fairbanks, board member Brandon Emmett participated in rallying calls to vote “no” on making commercial marijuana illegal.

Public members on a call-in radio show, KSRM, questioned whether that constituted an ethics violation. But such activities aren’t in violation of state law, said Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general in the Alaska Department of Law.

“There is no prohibition against a board member participating in this process, and exercising their freedom of speech to voice their opinion on a local issue,” she wrote in an email to the Journal.

In analyzing for potential violation, the state oversight of boards and commissions would analyze for financial rewards for activities related to commission work.

None was found in either Mlynark or Emmett’s activities, she said.

Bethel alcohol tax hike passes

Bethel voters agreed to raise taxes on alcohol sales at its two liquor stores from 12 percent to 15 percent in a vote of 372 in favor to 257 against in the Oct. 3 City of Bethel election, giving that western Alaska hub city the highest sales tax in Alaska.

The Bethel City Councilman who sponsored the petition, Leif Albertson, said voters agreed that alcohol sales are taking a toll on social services in the community.

“They were reading it accurately that we have a huge cost associated with alcohol sales here. A lot of times in rural Alaska, people are more concerned about the sense of community and public safety when you’re out of the larger metro area,” Albertson said. “Everyone has someone affected by alcohol and so it feels a little more personal.”

Both anecdotal and actual statistics bear out that since more-easily available alcohol became legal in Bethel in May 2016, costs have gone up, Albertson said.

“People have seen more problems with domestic violence, theft and homelessness,” he said. “We’ve also heard from non-profits, such as at Winter House those running it say they are experiencing increased burdens from the increased sale of alcohol.”

Yet, those same nonprofits don’t have access to an increase in funding to pay for serving the extra people.

“They get no help in terms of a tax benefit,” Albertson said.

To solve that, Albertson’s plan included making grants available from the $1 million anticipated in tax revenue from a 15 percent sales tax. An additional 3 percent is projected to add $200,000 to the $800,000 in annual tax revenue, he said.

Those who didn’t support the tax hike expressed concern about illegal bootlegging getting the advantage, Councilmember Thor Williams said during the debate on putting the petition out. But in the end, the council voted in favor of placing the petition on the ballot.

Bethel has long been a “damp” community, meaning it is legal for people to order alcohol to be shipped into Bethel for use in their homes.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi.klouda@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
10/04/2017 - 12:14pm

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