FAIRBANKS — Alaskans — and Fairbanksans in particular — voted to to legalize the possession, use, cultivation and sale of marijuana this year, but just how the business side of things will play out statewide and locally will be decided in the next many months.
Even though, under Ballot Measure 2, pot stores won’t be able to open their doors until 2016, local lawmakers got an early jump on the issue Tuesday night.
An intergovernmental town hall hosted by the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the city of Fairbanks and the city of North Pole drew a diverse audience to the Pioneer Park Centennial Center to hear from the community and discuss what the three governments might want to do about marijuana businesses.
Personal possession, use and cultivation of marijuana will become legal on Feb. 26, 90 days after the certification of the election.
The road to businesses will be much more involved, said Assistant Borough Attorney Wendy Doxey to the packed hall.
Once Ballot Measure 2 becomes law, the state has nine months to adopt regulations for businesses and permitting, then three more months to begin accepting applications and three months to issue them, setting a May 2016 date for businesses to open their doors. There’s also the opportunity for the Legislature to sound off on the issue this session.
The law allows local governments to regulate or outright ban pot businesses, but to what extent is an open question, Doxey said.
“At this point, it’s difficult to say what really can be done because there’s a lot of questions left open by the act today,” she said.
Assemblyman Karl Kassel, one of the main organizers for the town hall, said though it was early, it was important for people to be thinking about what sort of limitations they might want on pot businesses.
“We have to make some decision or it moves forward without us,” Kassel said, adding that there’s the potential without local regulations that a pot business could be grandfathered into a place where the community might not appreciate it, like “between a daycare and a church.”
Also at issue is the fact that the borough is classified as a second class borough, meaning it doesn’t have police powers and, as Borough Attorney Rene Broker pointed out, has limited health and social services powers.
The main vehicle for the borough to regulate marijuana sales will likely be through zoning, which can control where, how and when such businesses can operate.
Assemblyman Lance Roberts, who was the target of some heckling for his conservative stance on the issue, said he would like to avoid having all regulation done through zoning and suggested a new section of borough code be created.
Doxey said other municipalities on the state are leaning toward putting the brakes on allowing commercial sales of marijuana, considering enacting at least temporary bans while regulations are worked out.
Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said that while he’s working on local legislation for marijuana sales, he will not put forward a ban.
“I don’t see a moratorium action coming forward, not by me,” he said. “I don’t think we need to be following the big sister city to the south.”
Hopkins was enthusiastic about the potential for pot businesses in Fairbanks, but said it’s important for the community to be involved and help craft an industry right for the community.
The audience was largely in favor of Hopkins’ statements and many spoke at great length about the opportunity for people to make a living by growing, processing or selling marijuana.
Others opposed it out of concern businesses would increase the availability of marijuana to minors.
There were several testifiers who supported the decriminalization of marijuana, but were concerned Ballot Measure 2 was a “trojan horse” for commercializing marijuana.
Alaska Mental Health Trust CEO Jeff Jessee said he supports decriminalizing marijuana and a person-to-person system for sales, but warned the law focuses too much on a creating a big industry.
“Many people will be surprised when they find out that if they have a small grow of marijuana and want to sell a small amount to their neighbor, they are just as much of a criminal tomorrow as they were yesterday,” he said.
He urged people supportive of small-scale marijuana businesses to urge the Legislature to legalize those person-to-person sales.
“What people do in the privacy of their own home or exchanged between individual Alaskans is part of what Alaskans’ sense of individuality is all about,” he said. “The irony of this proposition is it creates a large-scale government regulated and taxed industry from which Alaskans must purchase their marijuana.”
That sense of individuality and rejection of “big marijuana” struck a chord with the audience and was referenced by numerous supportive testifiers.
John Collette said he wanted the local governments to take a leading role in permitting commercial establishments in Alaska, at the risk of getting left in Anchorage’s dust.
While there was plenty of enthusiasm for businesses, many recognized whatever is done locally should be done with safety in mind.
“Cannabis is undoubtedly safer than alcohol on every conceivable dimension, but that being said it is not safe,” he said. “It is an addictive substance and we owe it to ourselves and to our community that we invest in our health.”
An audio recording of the presentation will be posted online at fnsb.us by the end of the business day, Borough Clerk Nanci Ashford Bingham said.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.