JUNEAU, Alaska – Alaska marijuana grower Mike Emers has been losing sleep with a vote fast approaching that he says could shutter his family’s business and financially ruin them.
The statewide initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in 2014 allows local governments to ban pot businesses within their borders. And on Tuesday, voters in two of Alaska’s major marijuana-growing areas – including the Fairbanks area, where Emers operates Rosie Creek Farm – will decide whether to do so.
If the proposed bans on marijuana growing, manufacturing, selling and testing are successful, several dozen businesses would be forced to close. And, some in the industry worry, besides creating a bottleneck in the cannabis supply chain, it could embolden other communities to pursue bans or cause state lawmakers to look at whether to roll back legalization.
“I think this is a pivotal moment for the course we’re setting here,” said Cary Carrigan, executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association. Carrigan said he felt good about the work the industry has put in to fight the bans but wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how the votes might go.
Emers, who turned to growing cannabis after financially struggling as an organic fruit and vegetable farmer, understood the risks when he poured his life savings into the business. While the vote is legally allowed, “on a moral basis, it’s disingenuous,” he said.
“To have the rug pulled out from under us once the ball is rolling seems incredibly unfair,” he said.
The opt-out provision for local governments isn’t unique to Alaska, but it’s unusual to see it exercised so long after a legalization vote, said Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel with the national, pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
Following Oregon’s 2014 legalization vote, there was a rush by rural communities in the eastern part of that state to enact bans, he said.
In Colorado, at least 69 communities have embraced marijuana businesses, most along the heavily populated Front Range, in Rocky Mountain resort areas or near borders with neighboring states. More than twice as many have opted out, according to the Colorado Municipal League.
However, some communities that banned the drug in legal pot states have revisited the decision in light of tax revenues from sales. For example, the City Council in Yakima, Washington, last year lifted a ban on recreational pot businesses.
Supporters of the proposed bans in and around Fairbanks, the largest city in Alaska’s Interior with about 32,000 people, and in rural parts of the Kenai Peninsula Borough initially hoped to bring the issue to voters last fall but failed to meet deadlines to do so.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is about 65 air miles southwest of Anchorage.
Ban supporters contend it is one thing to support legalization statewide but another to support it in your community.
“The voters have a right to decide important questions like this, and when they get ignored and the neighborhoods aren’t being protected by their local government, whose job it is to do that, someone needs to step up and say, `Listen, this is wrong, and we need to fix it,“’ said James Ostlind, chairman of the initiative group supporting bans in Fairbanks and surrounding unincorporated communities.
Ostlind and others cite frustration with local zoning rules they see as too lax and allowing marijuana businesses near homes.
Christine Nelson, director of community planning for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which encompasses the city and nearby communities, said much of the borough is zoned as general use, allowing for nearly any type of use. Many subdivisions and neighborhoods have gone up in these zones, creating a rub when other types of property owners want to come in, she said.
Local officials have encouraged homeowners in general use areas who don’t want legal pot farms or retail shops nearby to petition to have their areas rezoned as residential, a designation that restricts cannabis businesses. The trick, though, is getting enough homeowners to sign on, since some may have bought their property because they could use it for a range of purposes and don’t want to lose that, Nelson said.
Lance Roberts, a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough assembly who supports the Fairbanks-area bans, expects a large voter turnout and a tight vote.
Many of the communities that have barred or limited pot businesses in Alaska so far are smaller or fairly conservative, such as North Pole, just outside Fairbanks, and Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla.
Blaine Gilman, a leading voice in the effort to bar marijuana businesses in parts of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, does not believe the commercialization of pot has been good for the community. He cites health concerns and fears it could lead to use of harder drugs, issues the industry has challenged.
Gilman, a former borough assembly member, said that during the debate over legalization, marijuana advocates, as part of their pitch, made clear that communities would have the right to opt out. But, “when people try to opt out, there is a huge reaction,” he said.
Leif Abel, whose Greatland Ganja growing operation based in the peninsula town of Kasilof would be affected, said if the measures succeed, they could have a chilling effect on the industry and “embolden the prohibitionist stance.”
He feels confident in the industry’s efforts to defeat the measure on the peninsula and said he’s as calm as he can be about it.
“This is the last dying throes of prohibition,” he said, adding later: “Even if some of these folks don’t admit it to themselves … the real reason that they still want to prohibit marijuana is they don’t want to accept a certain segment of society in the mainstream.”