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Unalaskans Overturn Commercial Pot Ban, But Local Industry Remains A Long Way Off


Unalaska voters have overturned the city's ban on commercial marijuana, but it'll likely be a long time before anyone on the island can sell pot legally.

After the City Council banned pot businesses in February, voters answered back last week by passing a referen?dum that repeals the ban. 

The measure was approved with 54 percent of the vote.

Technically, that means it'll be legal to start a business cultivating, manufacturing, or selling pot as soon as the Council certifies election results Tuesday night. 

In reality, though, commercial marijuana sales won't come fast or easy to Unalaska.

"Let's say a cultivation facility or a retail store wanted to open in Unalaska," said Jason Brandeis, a lawyer and professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, who specializes in marijuana law. "How would those places get product to sell? How would they ship it to testing facilities?"

Brandeis said transportation and testing are major obstacles to the development of a commercial pot industry on the island — or anywhere in rural Alaska.

"There are a number of federal laws that govern transportation through the air and over water," he said. "That really limits the ability of people off the road system to transport marijuana into or out of their communities."

As long as entrepreneurs can't get pot products to the island or send them out to get lab-certified, Brandeis said there's no answer as to how Unalaskans can start commercial marijuana businesses.

While the industry waits in legal limbo, Assistant City Manager Erin Reinders said the City Council can prepare for the day it mig?ht become possible. Reinders said the Council has already cleared the only state-required regulatory hurdle by creating a marijuana committee.

"But what they could do is consider additional regulatory factors like zoning, hours of operations, or sales tax," she said.

That could take some time, according to Reinders, because any new pot regulations have to go before the Council and through public hearings before they're adopted as city ordinances. She said a proposal to increase sal?es tax would also have to go before voters.

"My hope is to get that conversation going," she said. "It's the right thing to have guidance out there early. so people can make more educated decisions."

On Tuesday night, the City Council will hold its first session since voters overturned the commercial pot ban. 

There's no mention of marijuana on the meeting agenda, but councilors are expected to certify the results of last week's municipal election, including the referendum.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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