Unofficial results show Alaskans overall saying “yes” to legalizing marijuana in last week’s election, but while the road to a legal and regulated marijuana market is still many months away, some communities wanting to keep the divisive drug out are looking at doing so the same way many currently ban alcohol: the local option.
Unalakleet was one of several rural communities that said “no” to Ballot Measure 2. A village of fewer than 700 residents, 53 percent voted against legalizing marijuana.
“Our community is family oriented,” said Joel Oyoumick, a pastor at the Unalakleet Covenant Church. “We care for our children and we don’t want the exposure [to] marijuana. Life is hard enough as it is, and we don’t need a … people just don’t need another problem. It’s not a good scene.”
Oyoumick said residents were dismayed to see Ballot Measure 2 succeed, even as it found more support in rural areas than it did statewide. In the Norton Sound neighborhood, it passed with a strong 57 percent “yes” vote, significantly better than the 52 percent “yes” vote statewide.
But Unalakleet, along with many other communities around the state, currently keep alcohol out using the local option. It’s a tool they may consider when it comes to keeping marijuana out, too.
“There’s several options to local option,” said Cynthia Franklin, the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the group tasked with setting up Alaska’s laws for growing, selling, and buying marijuana—just as it does now for alcohol.
“The way that alcohol is regulated, the local options range from a complete ban of alcohol to a damp community [allowing partial or limited sales] to a wet community.”
Franklin said local option for marijuana comes “with an asterisk,” however: while the local option allows for communities to completely ban the sale, importation, and possession of alcohol, that won’t be possible with the new marijuana laws. Franklin, a prosecutor before heading up the ABC board, said Alaska’s courts ruled back in 1975 that possessing small amounts of marijuana is protected in the state constitution.
“The Supreme Court in Ravin v. Alaska said that every Alaskan, wherever they live in Alaska, has a constitutional right to privacy in possession of up to four ounces of marijuana in their own home,” Franklin said. “So it’s not possible for a local community to completely ban possession of marijuana.”
Each community, town, or city could hold a vote to put in place local option laws forbidding other parts of the legal marijuana business, including banning the sale, cultivation, or importation of the drug that was legally bought elsewhere in the state.
Even those who advocated for legal marijuana, like Taylor Bickford, the public spokesperson for the Ballot Measure 2 effort, said leaving the decision up to locals was part of the plan all along.
“Communities throughout the state will have the option of banning the commercial marijuana industry, if that’s what they choose to do,” Bickford said. “That was the point of Ballot Measure 2, was to end prohibition and put decision making power back in the hands of local communities.”
Franklin with the ABC Board said the state’s marijuana laws are still taking shape. From the day the election is formally certified—likely near the end of November—the board will have nine months to craft a full regulatory system before the first legal marijuana sales take place. Franklin said there’s some freedom to that process, but any laws will have to stay true to what voters approved on the ballot.
“We’re walking a tightrope, because the idea is to find a place where you write regulations that take into account public safety and public health, and some control measures, at the same time without violating the intent of the initiative.”
For Joel Oyoumick, the pastor in Unalakleet, regardless of local option or state legalization, he and others in Unalakleet remain wary of legal pot.
“We don’t like the effects of anything illegal,” he said. “It’s still federally illegal. Just because the state’s approved it is not … it’s not right.”
Franklin said it will be up to communities in the coming months to organize their own local votes on whether or not they’ll use the local option to keep marijuana on the legal blacklist.