Wasilla bans marijuana businesses
WASILLA — Southcentral Alaska’s cannabis business just got more concentrated in Anchorage. A big chunk of the Valley, long a byword for marijuana cultivation, is out.
The Wasilla city council voted unanimously on Jan. 25 to ban all commercial marijuana within city limits, further narrowing options for Alaska cannabis industry to enter the newly legal market.
The ban prohibits testing, processing, cultivation, and retail sales within Wasilla city limits, and also expressly prohibits consumption anywhere except a private residence with the owner’s permission.
A state ballot initiative that passed in November 2014 legalized commercial marijuana activities in February 2015, but the ballot also specified that localities could opt out. In the Mat-Su, the city of Palmer has already banned commercial cannabis activities, and the Mat-Su Borough will have a borough-wide ban on its next public ballot.
Industry representatives — who had packed the house alongside marijuana opponents — said the ban is yet another step in a slippery slope of local bans.
“I want to puke,” said Midnight Greenery chief operating officer Tina Smith, a Wasilla resident. "This is the first step of banning it at the borough. We have the biggest grow in Alaska, right here. Once we start banning it, our industry is done. The more places opt out, the closer it gets to being closed entirely.”
Daniel Bracken, a local pastor who led his congregation in speaking in favor of the ban, said the council made the right decision for the majority of Wasilla voters who voted against Ballot Initiative 2 in 2014.
“I’m pleased,” said Bracken. “I think they made the right decision in respecting the will of the voters.”
‘I can do it here, or I can do it in Houston.’
Emotions ran high during public comment, both against the ban and in favor of it. Proponents of the ban had a running concern over providing a wholesome and safe environment for children.
The congregation of local King’s Chapel Alaska turned up in force to voice concerns. Bracken implored the council to spare Wasilla’s children from an influence he associates with criminality and vice. A mother, formerly homeless, linked her previous poverty to her young intro to the substance.
Like alcohol, said Wasilla man Leland Bogess, marijuana could work its way down to children and “infect” middle school and high schools. Youthful mistakes, others said, lead to lifelong regrets.
“Is it fair for boys like these to grow up poor, hungry, uneducated, malnourished, and complete the cycle of their parents?” asked Chris LaCroix.
Still other mothers, like pregnant Allie Van Eck, excoriated the council for even considered the “unfounded and unbalanced” ordinance that would take away her favorite anti-morning sickness aid, cannabis edibles. Medical users poured out stories of cancer pains and post-traumatic stress disorder cured by cannabis use.
Cannabis industry proponents looked for the nuts and bolts approach to convince the council to vote down the measure. Cannabis industry advocates cited Colorado and Washington to remind Wasilla of the potential tax dollars and the potential tourist trade the marijuana trade could create for the city.
Industry hopefuls insisted that regulated business is less a risk than a thriving black market without the security and age requirements of the regulated market.
“Why are we possibly saying no to a viable industry here in our home town?” asked Smith, of Wasilla’s Midnight Greenery. “Give us a chance to show you the possibility before you shut us out.”
Robert McMasters, who plans to open a 10,000-square foot cultivation facility in Wasilla, said he plans to produce enough cannabis to pay the City of Wasilla $200,000 in excise tax.
“I can do that here, or I can do that in Houston.”
For a few cannabis advocates, the ban simply amounted to a denial of what they see as an Alaskan right.
“I don’t agree with our voted-upon rights being stripped away because one person doesn’t agree with another person’s personal decision,” said Chris Butters.
‘Not in my town.’
Council chose, in the end, to keep to what they said was their city’s will, not the state’s. The council passed the vote unanimously.
Mayor Bert Cottle, who only votes in the event of a council tie, put the council’s feelings as a matter of the local popular vote.
"In November 2014…48 percent of people in Wasilla voted yes, and 52 percent voted no,” Cottle said. “The same people who elected us every year are the one who voted. I guarantee you, if the vote had gone the other way, the discussion would’ve gone the other way.”
Council member Stu Graham earned a roomful of hisses when he equated cannabis consumption with the privilege of driving or alcohol consumption, saying alcohol has little social value and implying neither would marijuana.
“The citizens of Wasilla said, ‘not in my town,’” said Graham. “And that’s where we need to be.”
Deputy mayor Gretchen O’Barr denied earlier comments from cannabis industry representatives that said a highly regulated market would be a more effective deterrent for underage consumption than the current black market.
“Just because it’s a legal business doesn’t mean we can necessarily keep it from children,” O’Barr said. “I don’t see how any drug use in general can go down.”
Council member Brandon Wall said he sympathized with medical concerns brought up during public comment by medical marijuana users, but said medical usage is not the point.
“This isn’t about medical marijuana,” said Wall. “Unfortunately we have a Legislature that’s completely filled with cowards that didn’t want to address medical marijuana when they had the chance. I agree with the notion that there are benefits to medical marijuana you’re not going to get with the big pharmaceutical companies, but what we’re talking about…is retail sales in city limits…I don’t see the win for Wasilla tonight.”
Wall also added an amendment that specified marijuana consumption is solely limited to private property with the explicit consent of the property owner.
Concerns over the accepting marijuana industry’s federally illegal cash-only market swayed council member David Wilson to vote in favor of the ban.
“Being a schedule 1 ban, it is federally illegal, and banking institutions have not stepped up to accept that money,” Wilson said. “With that, it becomes and issue for the city if we were to tax that...I feel the city shouldn’t take on responsibility of those funds.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].