Marijuana activists prepare for KPB vote

Three months ahead of a vote on whether cannabis businesses can continue operating in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s outside incorporated cities, the nascent industry and its supporters are preparing to campaign in person, in print, on the airwaves and online.

 

When voters from outside the limits of Kenai, Homer, Seward, Seldovia, Kachemak City and Soldotna go to polling stations on Oct. 3, they’ll decide on Proposition 1 — the question of whether the borough should “prohibit the operation of any commercial marijuana establishment outside of the Borough cities,” including marijuana retailers, cultivators, product manufacturers and testing facilities.

Nearly all the borough’s legal marijuana business would be affected if the majority of voters say yes. Of the peninsula’s marijuana businesses presently licensed by the Alaska Marijuana Control Board, only the Kenai retailer Red Run Cannabis is within a city boundary. Though Red Run also grows marijuana at its Kenai store and has a pending license for a second Kenai cultivation facility, the rest of the peninsula’s legal cultivators would be eliminated, including two cultivators each in the unincorporated communities of Sterling and Nikiski, four in Kasilof, three near Seward, two near Homer and four near Soldotna. Inside Kenai would also be the only central peninsula area where cultivators could legally grow, at least until the end of this year. Soldotna’s city government is currently drafting language for a permanent ban on commercial marijuana businesses within city limits.

A local community of cannabis supporters and entrepreneurs — many of whom have become seasoned activists and policy proponents since the 2014 vote to legalize marijuana in Alaska — is responding with the Keep Cannabis Legal campaign. The group has recently stepped up its public presence, speaking to people from a booth in Soldotna’s Wednesday Market and marching in Kenai’s Fourth of July Parade. Much of the group’s activity so far has been aimed at fundraising and volunteer recruitment in order to support a later outreach and advertising push, according to member Leif Abel. At a meeting on Wednesday, Keep Cannabis Legal campaign manager Amy Jackman — a former Kenai City Council member and marketer at KSRM radio network who in last year’s election managed the campaign of independent U.S senate candidate Margaret Stock — outlined plans for that later advertising.

Jackman’s plan calls for starting the push in September with newspaper ads, robocalls, mailers, $1,500 worth of Google ads, and three radio ads per day through the later part of the month, ramping up to 10 per day in October. The group also plans to continue its in-person outreach at events including Salmonfest and the Kenai Peninsula Fair in Ninilchik.

Owner Brian Ehlers of Alaska Bud Brothers asked whether online ads are likely to be shut down or challenged. He alluded to Facebook shutting down the pages of several Alaskan marijuana retailers the previous week, and the fact that the businesses are prohibited from many types of advertising under tight state regulations.

Jackman said the campaign is unlikely to face the same challenges as the businesses. Keep Cannabis Legal isn’t for profit and is a registered political group with the Alaska Public Office Commission.

“We’re not selling a product,” Jackman said. “It’s an industry we’re supporting.”

A decided question?

Steering committee member Janna Karvonen, co-owner of Green Rush Gardens in Sterling, said many people aren’t aware the question will be on the ballot.

“For the most part, the people I’ve talked to didn’t even realize it was coming back, and also kind of upset that they have to vote on it again,” Karvonen said. “They have kind of a mentality of ‘We already voted on this — why is it an issue?’”

In the state and on the peninsula, the question of marijuana has always had very narrow margins. The statewide ballot proposition that legalized it in 2014 (Proposition 2) passed by six percentage points, while voters in the Kenai Peninsula’s four districts rejected it by about two percentage points — with the strongest rejection in the district containing Kenai and Soldotna, where voters were 4169 to 3558 against legalization. Two of the peninsula’s voting districts, however, voted yes — the district roughly south of Kenai, Soldotna and Cooper Landing, and the district south of Kachemak Bay.

Jackman believes sufficient enthusiasm for legal cannabis exists on the peninsula — she and several other Keep Cannabis Legal members said that nearly all the reaction they’ve gotten so far has been positive. The challenge for her side is converting the enthusiasm to votes, she said.

“I think the support is there, as long as we can reach the right number of people and get them to get out and vote,” Jackman said. “But isn’t that the case with any campaign?”

In many areas of Alaska, the 2014 ballot initiative was far from the final vote on marijuana. The proposition included a provision for local control, allowing borough and city governments to make their own marijuana rules provided they aren’t more permissive than the state’s. In October 2016 Matanuska-Susitna Borough voters rejected an initiative similar to the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s in an 10,508 to 8,694 vote. In 2017, a voter referendum to ban commercial marijuana also failed in Valdez. A petition for a ballot question on whether to ban the marijuana industry in Homer came 43 signatures short of the necessary 309.

In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the present ballot question was first proposed to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly by then-member Kelley Wolf in January 2015. At their meeting on Feb. 24 — coincidently, the day marijuana consumption became legal in Alaska. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted 6-3 against including it in the October 2015 municipal election ballot. Though a similar ordinance failed again in May 2016, the initiative came back once more in August as a voter petition, which succeeded in getting the question on the ballot, though not in time for the 2016 election.

“We were kind of anticipating it, especially with the original vote being so close,” Karvonen said. Jackman said that about thirty marijuana activists and businesspeople began meeting over a year ago about the possibility of a ballot initiative.

“Then they decided ‘It’s imminent, and we need to organize,’” she said.

Keep Cannabis Legal’s seven-member steering committee hired Jackman as a campaign manager in February, along with treasurer Jan Mabrey, who registered the group with the Alaska Public Office Commission that month.

Keep Cannabis Legal’s leadership consist mainly of business owners, many of whom have become seasoned marijuana policy activists since the 2014 ballot measure. Two — Abel, co-owner of Kasilof-based cultivator Greatland Ganja, and Dollynda Phelps of limited cultivation facility Peace Frog Botanicals — are former members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Marijuana Task Force. Abel estimated that about half of Keep Cannabis Legal’s regular volunteers have industry connections, while many are interested in promoting medical cannabis or preserving legal access in order to diminish the black market.

Abel’s Greatland Ganja is a large supplier to legal marijuana businesses statewide, contributing product to 10 retailers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Anchorage, Girdwood, Kenai, Sitka, and Valdez, according to its website. Abel is also a board member of the statewide Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, which contributed money and campaign work to efforts against the Valdez initiative, and may do the same for Keep Cannabis Legal, Able said.

Jackman said Keep Cannabis Legal’s ad campaign is targeting “super-voters” who habitually vote in every election — a group that statistically tends to be older and therefore statistically is more likely to oppose marijuana. Keep Cannabis Legal is planning to have lunch events at local senior centers in an effort to reach the probable demographic of these voters.

Another challenge of the get-out-the-vote campaign is that only residents outside city limits are eligible — a fact that Jackman said sometimes confuses prospective voters and complicates the group’s strategizing. It requires the group to be more specific in its calling and door-to-door campaigning. Keep Cannabis Legal is also trying to address voter confusion with an interactive map on their website that returns an eligibility status for an address.

Phelps was among those who frequently testified in favor of cannabis to the Kenai Peninsula Borough following legalization. At the Wednesday meeting, she said she was in charge of organizing an upcoming volunteer event — “a rally like in the old days,” she said.

“I want to be able to get the excitement going again, the energy like we had two years ago when we showed up and had a hundred-something people at the borough assembly,” Phelps said. “Standing room only, for goodness sakes. We did that with our excitement and our passion, and we can do that again.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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