Cannabis proposition pro- and con- take different approaches

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to remove an incorrect statistic about the outcome of the 2014 statewide vote to legalize marijuana in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. 

With voters outside the Kenai Peninsula’s incorporated cities set to decide in roughly a month whether to allow commercial marijuana operations, cannabis industry supporters and opponents are readying for the vote — one side with public meetings and campaigning, the other with advocacy by individuals.

Since the state begin permitting marijuana businesses in February 2016, entrepreneurs on the Kenai Peninsula have opened 25 cannabis cultivation and retail businesses, according to the Alaska Marijuana Control Board. All but one — Kenai’s Red Run Cannabis Company — are outside city limits. This year, industry members and their supporters have been pressing to keep these businesses operating by forming the Keep Cannabis Legal campaign. The group has been distributing flyers, putting up signs, buying advertisements, making phone calls, knocking on doors and hosting public events since late summer.

Keep Cannabis Legal is registered as a campaign with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, allowing it to accept contributions for its advertising. Like other Alaskan political groups, it will report its contributions and contributions and spending to APOC on Sept. 5. The group has a seven-member leadership board and two employees — campaign manager Amy Jackman and treasurer Jan Mabrey.

A similar proposition will also be on the ballot in the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks-North Star Borough, where a similar APOC-registered group, Keep Cannabis Legal Fairbanks, is opposing it. On other side, APOC-registered groups, both called Drug Free Fairbanks, also formed to collect signatures to put the initiative on the ballot and later to advocate for its passage.

Commercial marijuana opponents on the Kenai Peninsula — who initiated the present debate by petitioning the Kenai Peninsula Borough to include Proposition One in this year’s election — are working differently. They haven’t formed an APOC-registered organization and have so far eschewed buying ads, posting signs and holding public meetings.

“There are people who support this proposition who are getting out in the community and supporting it, but there’s no organized campaign,” said Blaine Gilman, a Proposition One supporter who made an unsuccessful attempt to ban commercial marijuana in the borough while a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

In February 2015, when then-assembly member Kelly Wolf introduced an ordinance that would have created a ballot question similar to Proposition One in February 2015, Gillman voted with Wolf and then-assembly member Stan Welles in favor of the unsuccessful measure. In April 2016, Gilman introduced an ordinance prohibiting commercial marijuana outside incorporated cities, but withdrew it at the next meeting, “because it was clear the assembly wasn’t going to do that,” he said. He opted instead for attempting the ballot initiative.

“I said, ‘Ok, if those members of the community who want to prohibit commercial marijuana like I do, it probably makes more sense for them to come up with a proposition themselves and gather the signatures,’” Gilman said.

A group of 35 individuals — including Welles, Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik, who also serves as chairman of the Marijuana Control Board, and religious leaders including Pastor Alan Humphries of the Soldotna Church of God, Pastor Kit Pherson of Calvary Baptist Church in Ninilchik and Keith Hamilton, president of Alaska Christian College — gathered the 898 signatures necessary to get the issue on the ballot.

With the question posed and the vote pending, Welles differs from the individual-advocacy approach that other supporters of Proposition One have taken. Welles — who resigned from the assembly in August to recover from open-heart surgery — said he would have organized a more active campaign in support of Proposition One if he was in better health.

“Look at any election campaign, and you have those candidates who run agressive campaigns with media advertising and signs and so forth, and we’re just not seeing it on Prop One, and I’m surprised,” Welles said. “I think the idea is folks are hoping the voters will have enough common sense to kill it and vote yes. I’m not sure that’s a very smart approach.”

Although some religious leaders were involved in the signature gathering, Welles said that “some are willing to speak about it and encourage their congregations, others feel like it’s a political issue and they should not deal with it from the pulpit.” He said some religious leaders have been reluctant to organize formal advocacy for Proposition One because the 503(c)3 tax exempt status that the federal Internal Revenue gives to churches requires them to abstain from some types of political campaigning, an approach Welles said he disagrees with. According to the IRS website, the ban “is on political campaign activity regarding a candidate; churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena.”

Pastor Humphries had not returned a request for interview as of print time Saturday evening.

Gillman said he’d introduced the borough measure because he felt the results of the statewide election didn’t reflect popular will outside the incorporated cities of Kenai, Homer, Soldotna and Seldovia.

“Voters in the borough voted against legalization of marijuana,” Gilman said. “The vote for yes was 12,151 in favor of legalization, and it was 12,316 against … Despite that, the assembly really hasn’t chose to put this out to a vote or to do it themselves, so that’s where the initiative came from.”

Gilman — who will represent the pro-Proposition One side against Keep Cannabis Legal member Leif Abel, owner of the Kasilof cultivator Greatland Ganja, in a Sept. 13 debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters — said he believes commercial marijuana opponents remain a majority.

“There is a whole segment of the community, which I think is a majority of the community, who don’t want to see it commercialized,” Gilman said. “And I don’t know how much putting up road signs and doing a political campaign will change anybody’s mind. I think people have already made up their mind on this issue.”

The leaders of Keep Cannabis Legal also say their cause has broad support, and the main challenge of the campaign will be ensuring its supporters turn out to polling sites on Oct. 3. In recent weeks the group has been keeping up their outreach at Soldotna’s Wednesday markets and has begun a series of public informational meetings — one on Thursday in Nikiski, where the 2014 vote was 429 to 350 against legalization, and another planned Sept. 21 in Kasilof, which supported legalization in 2014 with a 564 to 439 vote. Keep Cannabis Legal campaign manager Amy Jackman said each of these meetings have drawn out people not previously involved in the issue.

“Momentum has built,” Jackman said. “People hear about it through advertising, word of mouth, social media. Their curiosity is piqued. When people come to our meetings now, it’s often not the first time they’ve heard about this.”

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

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