How Will Legal Marijuana Work In Rural Alaska?

Early next year, Alaskans will be able to legally buy, transport, and use small amounts of marijuana. The initiative will not be law until three months after the vote is certified, and the state has more time to come up with rules for marijuana sales.

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In the meantime, there are still many questions about how legal marijuana would work in rural Alaska. Municipalities have the option to ban the sale of marijuana, but they can’t restrict transportation or possession. The campaign to oppose marijuana had its base in rural Alaska, and named Akiak’s Mike Williams as its chairman. He says he’s disappointed in the results.

“The villages need to take a look at what they can do, at the local level, the tribal level, and continue to pursue making sure that our communities are healthy,” Williams said.

Many questions remain on the law enforcement aspect of legal marijuana, but it’s clear that Alaska’s large rivers remain under federal law, which prohibits marijuana.

Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, a Coast Guard spokesperson, says his agency’s crews are responsible for federal navigable waterways, including the transportation corridors of the Kuskowkim and Yukon rivers.

“They are federal law enforcement agents so if they encounter people who are in violation of federal drug laws, we do have the authority to seize the illegal drug and possibly take that person into custody depending on the amount and what the situation was,” Wadlow said.

The Coast Guard would follow up with other law enforcement. Wadlow emphasizes that the Coast Guard’s other top concern is making sure people are not boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The law doesn’t restrict employers’ ability to outlaw drug use. Williams says that’s a tool that may expand in the coming months.

“Maybe it would be time for mandatory drug testing to all of the employees in schools and community organizations,” Williams said.

Bethel voters were split on the vote to legalize the possession and use of marijuana, with 52 percent voting against legalization, and 48 percent for the ballot measure. It passed statewide with those percentages flipped: 52 percent for, and 48 percent against.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.