A Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee played host to a hearing on one of the Dunleavy administration’s more controversial nominations: the governor’s pick of Vivian Stiver to replace Brandon Emmett on the State’s Marijuana Control Board (MCB).
The outgoing member and the incoming nominee offer a stark contrast in the makeup of the board, a five-member, quasi-judicial agency housed within the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, tasked with developing the regulations for the state’s growing marijuana industry.
Emmett was appointed to the five-person board by Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska) in 2015. In addition to his seat on the board, he is the president of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, was a co-founder and the former director of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, serves as an adviser to the Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor’s office, and is the chief operating officer of the Fairbanks-based concentrate supplier, Good Titrations. He filled one of two seats designated for industry members. However, the legislation that created the MCB, 2015’s House Bill 123, allows for that seat to be converted to one occupied by a member of the public. Governor Michael J. Dunleavy’s (R-Alaska) first appointment to the board, Vivian Stiver, does exactly that. The move has proponents of legalization worried.
Alaska first approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014, via ballot measure, and became the third state in the Union to allow residents aged 21 years or older to lawfully possess up to an ounce of cannabis (though marijuana remains illegal at the federal level). A provision of the ballot measure allowed localities the option of opting out, and Stiver has been a very public figure in the quest to ban the cannabis industry in her backyard, the Fairbanks North Star Borough. A former city councilwoman, Stiver was behind a 2017 ballot proposition that sought to ban retail sale of marijuana within the city and an active supporter on another aimed at doing so for the larger North Star Borough.
“During the election, [Stiver] boasted on her Facebook page that she would ‘be out here when I am 90’ to fight against cannabis,” Shaun Huot wrote in The Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. “Even after an overwhelming vote against her campaign, Stiver continued her fight against the will of the Alaska people. Stiver can be heard undermining the industry with absolute falsehoods at city and borough meetings since the vote.”
At the end of last month, Dunleavy put forward her name as Emmett’s replacement on the board. Responding to concerns, press secretary Matt Shuckerow told KTUU that it’s no secret Stiver “holds a certain skepticism for legal marijuana use” – a position he added many Alaskans share. Stiver, he said, would bring a valuable perspective to the board.
“I was hesitant when I was going to apply. In fact, I delayed and delayed and delayed because I knew this would be somewhat controversial,” Stiver told committee members Tuesday. She testified via phone. “It is a legitimate industry in our state that has a right to operate successfully, and it has to be responsive with the community. The community has to have confidence going forward as well.”
Sen. Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) first broached the concerns she was hearing about the appointment from constituents. She read one aloud: “The email that I wanted to give you a chance to reply to says that you would be unable to fairly carry out the duties of the position because your public belief that cannabis users are non-functioning members of society.”
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Stiver replied. “I felt that our city council needed to have ordinances in place prior to having businesses in our area. We didn’t win that. It went down. That was not an attempt to make marijuana illegal. It was not a judgment on anyone who uses any marijuana product. So, that is inaccurate.”
“During the governor’s State of the State speech, he campaigned on public safety and job growth and new business into the state,” Sen. Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks) followed up. “Would you align with the governor’s promises to grow Alaska’s economy in an industry that you’ve not been supportive of in the past?”
“I had the opportunity to tour businesses. I saw the professionalism. I’ve learned about their procedures. I think if more people understood that they have to account for their inventory every day, at the end of the day, they’d have more appreciation for what the industry has done as far as regulating themselves. I’m all in,” Stiver answered. She noted that regulation had worked, pointing to the state’s shuttering of Frozen Buds. The Fairbanks store holds title to the dubious distinction of being both the first cannabis shop approved by the MCB and the first to have its license revoked after allegations of falsified records and the sale of untested products.
“Regulation: it worked,” Stiver assured Bishop. Her full response spanned nearly two hundred words but, as online commentators noted, failed to include the word “Yes.”
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson (D-Anchorage) emphasized the importance of separating personal opinion from policymaking. She asked Stiver, “If you’re confirmed, can you be impartial in making decisions?”
“Yes, I can be impartial. It’s kind of cut and dry,” Stiver responded. “I reached out to the community, to the industry, and tried to learn more. And I have learned more. And I have to tell you, Kim Cole’s marijuana handler’s test – you should all take it. That is an amazing test. I’ve taken it. I did well. So, my interest is to learn and to understand and work well with everybody.”
Kim Cole is the owner of Raspberry Roots, an Anchorage cannabis dispensary. She also runs Handle Alaska, an MCB-approved online educational permit course for state applicants. Cole was in queue Tuesday waiting for the chance to testify in opposition to Stiver’s confirmation.
“While I do appreciate the shout out, that she promoted my course and says it’s thorough, it is the absolute minimum that somebody needs to know in order to be compliant in the industry. It does not scratch the surface for somebody who will be creating and adjusting the regulations that will determine the long-term strength of the industry,” Cole told the committee. “Honestly, the best way for a prohibitionist to take down an industry that couldn’t be shut down through three different votes is to try and dismantle it from the inside by getting herself on the board. Actions speak ten times louder than words. She has conducted prohibitionist actions, like creating the two ballot measures in Fairbanks, and she has been outspoken and completely ignorant in her public comments regarding cannabis, its benefits, regulations, and its sales.”
“Prohibitionist” was a label applied to Stiver myriad times throughout the two-hour meeting. It joined a long list of other terms, neatly compiled by The Midnight Sun‘s Matt Buxton, which included (but was not limited to), “abject prohibitionist,” “suspect,” “misinformation,” “makes no sense,” “falsehoods,” “disqualifying,” “worrying,” “troubling,” “super-worried,” “liar,” “red flag,” and “anti-marijuana activist.”
“Vivian Stiver is not simply a contrarian voice, but in fact has been historically one of the worst enemies of the cannabis industry here in Alaska,” Trevor Haynes of Fairbanks-based GOOD Cannabis testified. “As a person who’s been completely devoted to shutting down the industry, Vivian Stiver would be able to do incredible damage if she held a board seat.”
Joshua Cobin, of Farmer Jack’s, LLC, a licensed marijuana cultivation facility in Anchorage, piled on: “I am a 20-year veteran of the cannabis industry. I was one of the black market people before legalization. When legalization came around, I wasn’t for it, but it happened. And I felt like I made a deal with the state: You give me a license, I pay taxes, we follow the rules. Appointing a prohibitionist to the board that dictates the rules wasn’t part of the deal.”
Support for Stiver was, by comparison, buried. But Terrence Robbins, a former director of the Drug Free Communities Program in Ketchikan, said he supported Stiver because diversity in opinions (also, speaking in terms of diversity overall, Stiver would be the only non-white, non-male on the MCB) was important. “The current board has made little effort to keep marijuana from youths to date or to protect the public from intoxicated drivers and secondhand smoke through their on-site consumption,” he contended. “This regulatory board isn’t the board of directors for marijuana companies. It’s supposed to represent us, keep us healthy, and protect the public.”
In baseball terms, the balance between support and opposition to Stiver’s confirmation would be what is considered a laugher. The committee eclipsed its time limit with over a dozen people still in queue still waiting to speak (they were encouraged to email their testimony). Of those who spoke, 53 opposed Stiver and seven registered support. But that’s the wrong scoreboard to keep track of. The next step in the confirmation process is a joint session, where the ultimate vote of legislators will determine her fate. The date has yet to be scheduled.
“We’ve heard some things and some terms consistently and throughout this hearing today which are words that I think tend to incite a lot of fear,” Stiver said in closing. “I am not a prohibitionist.” She said that she had studied Colorado and Washington law and never showed up unprepared. “I know this is difficult, but I am confident that I will work well with everyone, all the stakeholders in the community, to make sure that there is success for everyone.”