ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Voters in some parts of Alaska rejected efforts to ban commercial marijuana cultivation and retail sales, three years after the nation's largest state passed a voter initiative legalizing the recreational use of the drug.
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The votes Tuesday came during local elections in the state's major marijuana growing areas — in and around Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula southwest of Anchorage. All lost by wide margins.
"I'm happy to know that the 100 plus employees that are employed right now are going to keep their jobs, and there's going to be many more jobs on top of that," said Amy Jackman, campaign manager for 'Keep Cannabis Legal' on the Kenai Peninsula, where the ban was rejected by roughly 64 percent of voters. "And all these families down here, they're not going to lose their savings and their livelihoods."
The 2014 statewide initiative that legalized marijuana allows local governments to ban pot businesses within their borders.
"We're disappointed, but at the same time our purpose for these initiatives on the ballot was to give the voters a chance to make this decision and not have it made by our local government. So in that sense, it's a success," said James Ostlind, chairman of the group that backed the bans with separate measures in the city of Fairbanks and the surrounding Fairbanks North Star Borough. Both measures were rejected by about 70 percent of voters.
If the bans had been successful, they would have forced retail stores and cultivation facilities to close within 90 days and that would have left a gaping hole for other retail stores across the state in need of product. Personal use and growing pot at home for that use would still be allowed.
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Backers said zoning laws are too lax, letting marijuana businesses open too close to homes. Proponents fear any rollbacks will embolden other communities to institute bans or the Legislature to roll back legalization.
But Jackman said the overwhelming victory in support of the marijuana industry "encourages people to move on to something else."
Cary Carrigan, the executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, called the victories pivotal.
"A lot of these prohibition votes have been driven by church congregations," he said "They're looking for something to demonize, and it's not us. People accept us."
After a failed initiative, there's a two year hiatus before it can come back, Ostlind said. He wasn't ready to predict another initiative attempt in 2019.
"If the marijuana industry starts to cause more damage to a community than they do good, then people will stand up and they'll want to do something about it," he said.
The election was held the same day the Alaska Department of Revenue released its monthly marijuana tax receipts from cultivators. The state collected nearly $700,000 in August, which was the highest monthly amount since collections began last October. Ten new cultivators began paying taxes in August, and half are from areas where votes were being held Tuesday.
Since October 2016, cultivators in the greater Fairbanks area have paid nearly $1.2 million in taxes, while those on the Kenai Peninsula have paid more than $655,000. The state doesn't have tax figures for retails stores since those taxes are paid to local governments only.