Mat-Su pot moratorium stalls growth of cannabis industry

Three steps forward, two steps back. Mat-Su’s marijuana moratorium ordinance went through another iteration at Tuesday night’s Borough Assembly meeting, while a mayoral bid to kill the moratorium entirely met defeat.

Cannabis Plant. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Cannabis Plant. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A contentious ordinance approved by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly earlier this month puts a hold on all marijuana business activity within the Borough until after an October Borough election. Despite an outcry from Valley pot business supporters at several public hearings, the moratorium gained Assembly approval, as amended, two weeks ago. The amendment allowed an August moratorium expiration date for grow operations only.

Tuesday night, Assembly member Matthew Beck moved a reconsideration of the ordinance, contesting the early sunset date for pot grow operations. That move passed on Assembly vote, and the body  next approved the ordinance a second time, in it’s original form.

Late Monday, Borough mayor Vern Halter had announced his intention to veto the pot moratorium entirely, citing his belief that the state of Alaska should regulate cannabis sales and the Borough should be able to tax marijuana much like the regulation of alcohol

“Right now we have a situation where the Borough is writing regulations. At the last public hearing we had, the staff said we have probably have 90 days to 120 days until the finish of those regulations. So, you know, the moratorium is going to last until October. We probably won’t have state regulations, or the governor has to sign the state regulations if they are even at his desk at this point in time, before they go into effect. So the moratorium was just.. I didn’t really see the need for it, to tell you the truth.”

But Assemblyman Beck, who is also the Borough’s deputy mayor, on Tuesday night, moved to override Halter’s veto.

Mat-Su is wrestling with proposed land use regulations aimed at determining restrictions for permits for both grow operations and retail marijuana businesses. Those regulations are awaiting Borough planning commission action. Assemblyman Randall Kowalke, who represents Willow, and sponsored the moratorium in the first place, says the Borough’s lack of zoning laws makes it imperative for land use restrictions to keep grow operations out of residential neighborhoods.

“And while many of the folks who I have gotten to know on the marijuana business side of this were thoughtful, and have chosen locations that won’t be real controversial, we have some others, in the Willow area in particular, that have put their facilities on lakefront property. The plan is to move forward with them, and neighborhoods, that’s where the problem lies. So I really hope I can get your support, fellow Assemblymen, for an override.”
The override of Halter’s veto was unopposed. Halter, now dubbed “Veto Vern” by the new cannabis boosters in the Valley, took it in stride.

“I guess I personally don’t fear marijuana as far as legalization. I’ve never thought prohibition was the best way to regulate marijuana. I think it’s a lot like alcohol. I think there’s there’s probably more abuse with alcohol than there could be for marijuana.”

The temporary moratorium aimed at keeping grow operations at bay, and the upcoming vote on a Borough wide ban against all marijuana retail business, highlight the fact that the Borough has been late to the table in establishing it’s local marijuana laws.

Two cities within the Borough, Palmer and Wasilla, have voted to keep marijuana out of city limits, but the community of Houston has voted to allow pot retail and grow facilities inside city limits. Borough voters will be asked to vote on a Borough ballot initiative whether or not to ban commercial pot entirely in Mat-Su at the October election.