Voters in Fairbanks and outlying areas will consider ballot measures Tuesday to outlaw marijuana businesses in the city and borough.
Safe Neighborhoods Fairbanks members say the proliferation of those businesses near residential areas presents a growing threat to families. Marijuana advocates disagree. They say making pot illegal again would halt the industry’s economic benefits and bring back the bad old days when consumers got their pot from the black market.
Jim Ostlind and other members of Safe Neighborhoods Fairbanks say they’re not looking to make marijuana illegal. He said advocates for borough Proposition 1 and Fairbanks Proposition A just want to keep marijuana businesses from opening up in residential and other “sensitive” areas.
“They feel like there needs to be some kind of control over this that isn’t there now,” Ostlind said.
Ostlind heads up Safe Neighborhoods’ political action committee, and he said members of the organization believe the Fairbanks North Star Borough is far too lenient in granting and renewing marijuana business permits.
“It looks to us like if a marijuana business wants to go in next to where you live, you’re going to have a marijuana business for a new neighbor,” Ostlind said.
Karen Bloom sees it differently. Bloom owns a marijuana-growing business in Fairbanks, and she says hers and all others in town have been granted permits and licenses because they followed the letter of the law established after Alaska voters approved legalizing marijuana three years ago.
“These are legitimate businesses, in a legitimate industry, following state and local regulation,” Bloom said.
Bloom said marijuana entrepreneurs don’t set up shop in a residentially zoned area, because that would violate state law and borough code. The borough only allows the businesses in areas zoned for agricultural, industrial or general use, or GU. Bloom said residents who don’t want a marijuana-related business in their neighborhood should work with the borough to rezone it residential, using the process Planning Director Christine Nelson outlined in a September 20th Fairbanks Daily News-Miner piece.
“The director did an excellent write-up on how residential neighborhoods that are zoned GU could go about being rezoned as a residential neighborhood, therefore prohibiting cannabis from being nearby,” Bloom said.
Commercial marijuana opponents said that’s a difficult and unnecessary process. And Ostlind said they distrust borough officials, because despite residents’ protests and big turnouts at public meetings, like one held for a proposed cannabis-growing facility off Badger Road, the borough has approved every application for marijuana business conditional-use permits.
“The community came out in force against this, there were so many people they had to have two nights of testimony,” Ostlind said. “Over a hundred pages of written testimony was submitted by the neighbors, and yet the permit was granted.”
Borough planning commissioners said they approved the application because it met all requirements. Bloom said that’s why it’s unfair for backers of the ballot propositions to resort to a referendum instead of seeking rezoning. She says if they prevail in next Tuesday’s vote, most marijuana consumers probably will go back to buying pot on the illegal black market. And she says there won’t be any public hearings or stateand local regulation for those dealers.
“Well, I can tell you right now the black market isn’t going to give two hoots about where they sell that product,” Bloom said.
Ostlind disagrees that marijuana consumers would flock to the black market. He predicts most would go to elsewhere outside the borough to buy, or would grow their own.
Marcey Luther thinks that’s unlikely. She works at a Fairbanks cannabis-cultivation shop, and is a member of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, and she said most people wouldn’t drive long distances to buy pot, nor be willing to invest the time and money required to grow it.
“The reality is that it takes a budget, it takes skill, it takes a space and it takes time to produce a productive crop,” Luther said.
Luther said if commercial marijuana were made illegal, it’s certain that most recreational users would revert to the black market – where quality control and consumer information is nonexistent.
“Black-market cannabis isn’t tested,” Luther said. “It can be full of mold. It can be full of pesticides. It doesn’t have the chemical breakdown on it.”
Ostlind said those are concerns for marijuana consumers, not the backers of the ballot measures.
“It’s not our responsibility to worry too much about the outcome of these initiatives,” OStlind said.
Ostlind said the same goes for the marijuana entrepreneurs. He says they should’ve known that there was a possibility that their operations could be made illegal by a voter initiative or referendum, as allowed for in the 2014 ballot measure that legalized pot in Alaska.
“Everybody knew what could be coming down the road,” Ostlind said, “and they made a decision, a business decision, and really I think that’s their responsibility.”
Bloom said that’s an irresponsible and short-sighted attitude to take about the dozens of area residents who’ve invested heavily in marijuana businesses and the hundreds who work in the industry that’s already brought significant economic benefits to the city and borough.
“We have warehouses that were sitting vacant and that are now filled and providing jobs,” Bloom said. “We have families that couldn’t work full-time that now have a year-round job, full-time. We have a tax base that we are contributing to.”
Ostlind doesn’t think it’ll be that much of problem. And he said in any case commercial-pot prohibition is the right thing to do.