On October 4, voters in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley roundly rejected the local government’s attempt to impose a ban on commercial cannabis cultivation and retail sales. Record voter turn-out showed the state’s premiere cannabis growing region is strongly opposed to pot prohibition.
Way back in 1975, shortly after a fluke court decision legalized marijuana in Alaska for the first time, HIGH TIMES sent a writer north to the Last Frontier. In Fairbanks, the writer met a guy who went by the name of Nordhoff.
Nordhoff made a claim that piqued the interest of pot fans across the Lower 48:
“Nordhoff carefully cleans out the bowl of a fossilized walrus tusk pipe and fills it with green leaf. The buds are huge, the size of a Malemute’s paw. He carefully picks one apart and crumbles it. ’Matanuska Thunderfuck’ he declares, firing it up. ‘The finest pot grown in the 50 states.”
“This weed is so strong it grows through the snow to find the sun,” Nordhoff said. “Farmers in the Valley plant it alongside patches of cabbage so big it takes two men to carry them, tomatoes so big you have to cut them off with a chain saw.”
The valley Nordhoff was talking about isn’t just any valley. He was talking about the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Alaska’s agricultural heartland. And he was right about the vegetables, which remain gigantic to this day. At the annual state fair in Palmer, farmers display freakishly-large, world-record-sized produce. Two years ago, dentist Steve Hubacek won the Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off with a 117.95 pound specimen.
Today the weed wars have returned to Alaska and the MatSu Valley. After 16 years of decriminalization, voters recriminalized in 1990. Eight years later voters decided to reallow medical pot and then in 2014 they joined Colorado, Washington and other states in reforming the law to allow for recreational use. State legalization laws tend to give local governments a degree of control over whether their jurisdictions will be part of the industry. In Alaska, though, “local” means something different than in most of the country. That’s what a group of diehard anti-pot crusaders are up to in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough – Alaskaspeak for ‘county’ — Nordhoff’s legacy be damned. They put an initiative to ban cannabis businesses in the borough, and the borough will vote on the measure Oct. 4. They’ll be voting a month before Election Day, when voter turnout will likely be higher and skew younger and more liberal.
Alaska’s most recently legalized in 2014, at the same time as Oregon; but the 49th state didn’t begin accepting applications for business licenses until late February 2016. It didn’t become clear that MatSu officials would try to crack down until two months later, the day before 4/20. It was a shock. By that time, some businesses in the Valley had already completed their application requirements. The borough assembly voted for a moratorium on cannabis business operations in early May, over the opposition of borough Mayor Vern Halter.
For everything except cultivation, the moratorium remains in effect until mid-October, when the votes have been counted. Supporters of legal cannabis see the MatSu initiative as a tactic for prohibitionists to roll back legalization in Alaska, and disrupt any would-be entrepreneurs in the short term. “In their efforts to delay, delay, delay and invoke industry wide bans in the 25th hour, many in the MatSu Borough cannabis industry have been pushed to the edge financially,” opponents said in a statement.
Forty years ago, in Alaska, the High Times reporter hung out with bush pilots who flew bales of weed across the interior and shot caribou from their planes. They visit Inuit tribespeople, called “Eskimo” at the time, and discuss the possibility of pools beneath the ice that can be extracted with “some hash oil wells.”
We live in a more prosaic time, but the scale and emptiness of Alaska can still challenge the imaginations of those in the Lower 48. The MatSu Valley is a 25,000-square-mile slab of land wedged beneath the Alaska Range. With about 100,000 people, the Valley has the fastest-growing population in Alaska. In its south, where commuting to Anchorage is common, it is Alaska’s version of an exurb. Much of the rest is wilderness.
MatSu’s largest town, Wasilla, has about 8,500 people, including the members of one nationally known family. If the ballot initiative passes, recreational cannabis sales in the borough, an area the size of West Virginia, would be limited solely to the town of Houston.
Alaska is a reliably Republican state, but the MatSu Valley is more socially conservative than the rest, as exemplified by Sarah Palin & Co. Even after the state legalized, opposition runs strong. Tel White, a businessman who’s running the campaign to oppose the ban and hopes to work in cannabis marketing, said no polling is available but that he wasn’t optimistic. “It would be amazing if we won,” White said. “The MatSu Borough has not voted in favor of the marijuana industry ever.” (Supporters of the ban did not respond to interview requests.)
Only about 9,000 voters are expected to turn out, said Bailey Stuart, a mom who co-owns the Green Jar, a Wasilla dispensary that currently sells CBD products. (The Palins haven’t visited, she said. Nor have they taken a stand on the initiative.) The state won’t allow MatSu Valley businesses to apply for marijuana licenses until after the vote.
Though it’s a small campaign, it has been a nasty fight. Pro-pot campaign signs have been vandalized and two pot business owners are suing the borough over bringing the initiative. A judge ruled that their cases would be decided after the vote.
Stuart doesn’t support the idea of suing the government. He wants the vote of the people. “We want to make it clear that we are wanted in the valley,” she said.
Alaska has had a cannabis scene since at least the 1960s, as hippies found their way to the new, northernmost state. In 1975, Alaska unexpectedly became the first state to effectively decriminalize weed. It all started with a 1972 incident in which a lawyer named Irwin Ravin was found with cannabis and instead of signing a ticket started a legal fight that eventually wound up before the state’s Supreme Court, which took the idiosyncratic legal stand that there was a constitutional right to privacy that included a small amount of weed in one’s home. As the HIGH TIMES article makes clear, Alaskans at the time thought it would lead to an economic boom. It didn’t work out that way.
Over the ensuing decades there has been a long tug of war over the plant’s status. During the first Bush Administration, in 1990, voters recriminalized, but the courts doggedly upheld an individual right to possession of small amounts.
Later, in 1998, it was among the first states to legalize medical. But Alaska is a place where people do what they want, and there’s plenty of room to hide a few plants.
Alaska is also the only state where the law allows for some form of public consumption, but so far, neither recreational dispensaries nor Amsterdam style coffee shops have opened.
In MatSu, Stuart said, prohibitionists have some “silly” fears, like legalization inviting gangs and cartels into the northern wilds. But she said the toughest argument to fight off is that cannabis is a gateway drug. Like many parts of the country, Wasilla is in the midst of an opiate crisis. “Heroin or cannabis, that’s the choice you have here,” Stuart said. And while research has shown that cannabis could mitigate the number of opioid related deaths, some are reluctant to welcome a new drug into drug-ravaged communities. (A similar mindset has set back legalization in Vermont and perhaps elsewhere.)
As the MatSu Valley faces prohibition again, its most famous product is in short supply. The fate of Nordhoff is unknown. Stuart told me of a man named John Shelp who “is rumored to have been closely involved or directly responsible for the creation of the MTF strain.” After he was busted proceeds from a local concert went to his legal fees for several years. In 2014, Shelp tried to trademark “Matanuska Thunderfuck” out of Nome, but abandoned the application.
There’s another guy known as MTF Jeff, Stuart says, who’s thought to grow in the bush, but no one seems to know how to reach him. The real Matanuska Thunderfuck strain is “a bit of a legend here,” Stuart said. “There are people here who are extremely hard to get ahold of.”