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Marijuana Industry Backing Cannabis-friendly Candidates, Favors Kawasaki Over Kelly

Dolce Vita International

For the first time since Alaskans legalized marijuana four years ago, members of the industry that grow and sell it are contributing to the campaigns of candidates they consider cannabis-friendly. The marijuana industry isn’t a big player in this year’s election, but some of its Fairbanks members have taken sides in the state’s most hotly-contested legislative race.

Fairbanks Democratic State Rep. Scott Kawasaki’s latest campaign-finance disclosure forms shows the usual suspects that give money to Democratic candidates: mainly individuals, but also unions, educators and health-care workers. The forms also show a few hundred dollars contributed by a new player in Alaska politics: the marijuana industry.

But, Kawasaki says, it’s no big deal.

“I’ve been supported by all sorts of different industries,” he said. “This is just treated as another industry.”

The contributions by cannabis-industry supporters constitute a fraction of the more than $207,000 Kawasaki had raised as of Thursday. That’s about $20,000 more than his opponent, Republican Senate President Pete Kelly, making it by far the state’s spendiest legislative race of this election cycle. But despite the relatively small sums donated by the industry, UAF political science professor Amy Lovecraft says its entry into the political fray is worth noting.

“It’s noteworthy I think for two reasons,” she said, “One, we’re still talking about an entire industry that is illegal, according to federal law. The other thing is, of course, because it is new.”

Lovecraft says as far as she knows this is the first time the industry has dipped its toe into the political waters in Alaska. Though it’s already an established player in other states like Colorado and Washington that legalized pot before Alaska did in 2014.

Credit KUAC file photos
Rep. Scott Kawasaki, left, and Sen. Pete Kelly

Kawasaki says he’s aware the industry’s contributions may cost him support among voters opposed to legalization, but he says he’s simply carrying-out the law established by the majority’s vote.

“Y’know,” he said, “when the people vote and when the people voice their opinion on something, it’s my job not to oppose it when I’m down in Juneau but (to) come up with regulations that make the industry work.”

Fairbanks marijuana entrepreneur Brandon Emmett says that’s all he and others in the industry ask of their legislators. He says that’s why they’ve donated to Kawasaki’s campaign.

“He’s kind of the best sort of person to have the favor of the industry because he says he doesn’t consume marijuana, but he sees the facts and he knows that Alaska is better served getting the (marijuana sales) tax revenues than not,” Emmett said. “And also, putting 2,000 (people) a year in jail was just bad policy.”

He says another reason he and the others are giving money to Kawasaki is because his opponent didn’t support legalization – nor the industry that’s arisen because of it.

“And then we have Pete Kelly, on the other hand, who is an enemy of the marijuana industry, and uses misinformation and outright lies to scare people away from said industry,” Emmett said.

Kelly’s office didn’t respond last week to requests for comment on Emmett’s views.

Lovecraft says she thinks the industry’s support for Kawasaki won’t hurt him politically, because the majority of Fairbanks-area voters decisively turned-back last year’s ballot measure to prohibit marijuana businesses within the borough. She predicts even less blowback in the years ahead.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
UAF political science professor Amy Lovecraft. She's also director of the university's Center for Arctic Policy Studies.

“I would bet that this is not going to be a story after people get over the novelty,” she said.

Emmett says he and others in the industry also support Representative Adam Wool and Grier Hopkins, who’s running for a vacant House seat, because both support the industry. They’re both Democrats, but Emmett says he and the others also have contributed to Republicans who are friends of the industry, like Anchorage Representative Gabrielle LeDoux.

LeDoux declined to comment on tape, but she says there’s nothing unusual about an industry that operates within the law donating money to political campaigns.

Emmett, who sits on the state’s Marijuana Control Board, agrees.

“The way politics works in America, it is a pay-to-play system,” he said. “And if you want a candidate that is favorable to your cause to get elected, you have to help financially with their campaign.”

Emmett says the industry especially appreciates efforts by Wool and LeDoux to authorize municipalities to permit on-site consumption of cannabis at qualifying retail stores. He says that’s likely to be the industry’s top priority in the coming legislative session.

Editor's note: The Alaska Marijuana Industry Association has queried candidates on cannabis-related and provides answers of those who responded here.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.