Fate of borough’s cannabis industry before voters

Leif Abel, co-owner of standard cannabis cultivation facility Greatland Ganja and a former member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Marijuana Task Force, advocates for voters to oppose Proposition 1 in the borough’s Oct. 3 municipal regular election during a debate with former assembly president Blaine Gilman on the topic hosted by the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017 in Soldotna, Alaska. Proposition 1 would ban commercial cannabis operations in the borough outside city limits. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

It’s down to the wire for Kenai Peninsula Borough voters outside the cities to decide whether they want to prohibit commercial cannabis operations.

 

Proposition 1, which would ban commercial cannabis operations in the borough outside the incorporated cities of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Seldovia and Kachemak City, will appear on the ballot Oct. 3. It’s the culmination of a nearly three-year tug-of-war in the Kenai Peninsula Borough between those who want to see the commercial cannabis industry legalized and regulated and those who want it to remain illegal in the borough.

If the majority of voters say “yes” to the proposition, commercial cannabis cultivation facilities, retailers, manufacturers and testers will be prohibited in the borough outside city limits. The 20–30 existing businesses, most of which are operating outside city limits, will have to close their doors, taking what opponents of Proposition 1 estimate is about 100 jobs with them.

At a Sept. 13 debate hosted by the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters, former assembly member Blaine Gilman advocated for voters to support Proposition 1, saying the peninsula was already feeling the weight of a major opioid addiction crisis and that the risk for children was too much to justify increasing availability of marijuana.

“We have a drug problem in this community, and we cannot be so naïve as to say marijuana is not a part of that,” he said.

His debate opponent, Leif Abel — who owns standard cannabis cultivation facility Greatland Ganja and sat on the borough’s Marijuana Task Force alongside Gilman for more than a year — argued that passing Proposition 1 won’t remove cannabis from the community because it will still be legal in the cities and for personal growing, and that prohibiting it will drive more of the cultivation and market back into the black market.

“All we do by creating the prohibition of any substance is we create dangerous cartels that are violent because they are protecting a product that is illegal and has to be smuggled,” he said.

Background

When Alaska voters passed Proposition 2 in 2014, authorizing commercial and recreational cannabis in the state, the language of the proposition included an option for local governments to opt out, banning commercial cannabis in regions of the state. Several municipalities have taken this route in Alaska, including Wasilla and North Pole, where commercial cannabis operations are banned within city limits. Others have opted for temporary moratoriums, including Soldotna, where a temporary ban will end on Dec. 31.

Three municipalities — the city of Fairbanks, the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough — will decide the futures of their cannabis businesses this fall.

The first move to ban commercial cannabis in the borough arrived in the borough assembly chambers in January 2015, but after heavy public objection, the assembly voted it down. The assembly approved a budget for the Marijuana Task Force to develop borough-specific marijuana regulations, which were finalized in 2016, just before the first licenses were granted in June 2016.

Gilman, who was president of the assembly at the time, sponsored an ordinance to ban commercial cannabis operations in the borough again in May, which was again met with divided public opposition and support. The assembly ultimately voted not to introduce the ordinance, leaving it up to the public to put forward a petition if they wanted it on the ballot.

A group of citizens gathered signatures throughout summer 2016 to try to place a proposition banning commercial cannabis on the October 2016 ballot but missed the deadline for signatures, ultimately pushing the vote to the October 2017 regular municipal election ballot. The commercial cannabis industry on the peninsula organized a coordinated campaign called Keep Cannabis Legal to encourage people to vote no and has been campaigning heavily for the past year, spending nearly $50,000 to advocate against Proposition 1, according to financial filings with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

For and against

Gilman argued at the debate that the local option included in Proposition 2 means the borough residents asking to ban commercial cannabis are within their rights. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services notes that smoking marijuana is associated with chronic bronchitis and advocates against anyone driving, biking or performing any safety-sensitive activities after using marijuana, but also notes that more research is necessary to understand the full health risks associated with different kinds of uses.

Citing multiple research papers, Gilman said cannabis use is not as dangerous as using heroin or other opioids but that there are potential negative health consequences.

Abel said marijuana has been shown to have positive health effects, including reducing pain in some patients and helping to control other medical conditions like seizures. Currently, although medical marijuana is legal in the state, it can be hard for those with medical marijuana cards to obtain the substance itself because pharmacies do not sell it and there are no medical dispensaries in Alaska, something the Keep Cannabis Legal group has used to advocate for the retention of retail facilities.

Abel noted that access for children will likely not disappear, as it will still be legal to grow cannabis in private homes and commercial facilities within city limits will still be open.

“We handle firearms at home,” Abel said. “If we have kids, we might lock (the firearms) up in a gun safe … we might pull the clips or the bullets from the rifles. If we have toddlers that get into things, we might even lock up the cleaning products under the sink. I am perfectly capable of controlling my cannabis at home if I can do these things.”

Gilman returned that Proposition 1 does not make the use of cannabis illegal, but it would stop the commercial cannabis industry from promoting itself on the peninsula.

“If we would have realized the dangers of smoking, at a point before tobacco became Big Tobacco, would we allow that to be marketed to our community, to our children?” he said. “I don’t think so. This is a health issue, a public policy issue. Why should we promote an industry that is selling a dangerous, harmful drug?”

Abel returned that cannabis is nothing like tobacco and that all drugs should not be entangled.

“If we keep grouping every single drug mankind uses into one lump sum, how are we ever going to get anywhere?” he said.

Voters will decide on Proposition 1 on Oct. 3. Only voters registered outside city limits are eligible to vote on the proposition.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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