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Joint decision: municipalities respond to state marijuana law


The above infographic presents the timeline for developing state regulations and issuing licenses to marijuana establishments.

The Petersburg Borough Assembly is soliciting community input on a law going into effect Feb. 24 that allows the personal use of marijuana. The law also provides for the eventual commercial sale of the drug, though municipalities can choose to limit or ban commercial enterprises.

Mayor Mark Jensen asked to begin a discussion of how the assembly and community would like to approach the new law at the Jan. 20 assembly meeting.

"I personally feel it's important that as a Borough we start working through this process," Jensen said. "I think just because it was voted to be legal, I don't know that people in our community want to have marijuana stores on main street."

Jensen added, and several assembly members echoed, that more public discussion is needed on the matter to determine how community members would like to see the law implemented locally.

Assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter said he was in favor of a "wait and see" approach.

"I think it's a good idea that we're going to start to have this conversation, but I think we're way too early at rules and regulations that the state still wants to come up with," he said. "I really think that there could be game changers on the state level and so (we) might as well wait and see."

Other Southeast communities like Wrangell and Ketchikan have started similar discussions in their communities and among their assembly members. However, neither

has taken formal action on the matter.

The City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) is taking cautious action on the matter, adopting an ordinance on Jan. 12 initiating a six month moratorium on accepting or approving permits "pertaining to marijuana establishments, including marijuana cultivation, testing, and product manufacturing facilities and marijuana retail stores."

Vice Mayor Cindi Lagoudakis suggested adopting a similar ordinance in Petersburg.

"I'm just suggesting this as a possible ordinance that we could adopt that basically says we're not going to zone anything for any marijuana-related cultivation or testing or product manufacturing until that time that the state has developed regulations that we can tie in to," she said. "It gives us a little breathing room."

Other communities in Alaska are being more proactive with their local legislation.

The Anchorage Assembly's first ordinance on the matter, presented on Dec. 16, would have prohibited commercial marijuana ventures. Some 70 residents showed up to comment on the ordinance–most opposed to an outright ban–which subsequently failed in a 2-7 vote.

Taking a second shot at their meeting Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed an ordinance which further defines "public consumption," pulling from definitions of the term as is already applied to alcohol and tobacco use.

After hearing more public testimony, an amendment was made to the ordinance to ensure that permitted facilities would not be considered "public," making possible cannabis cafes, or establishments where people can go to smoke.

The Sitka Assembly unanimously passed a similar ordinance during first reading Tuesday evening.

Like alcohol, marijuana cannot be consumed on public property including places such as parks, sidewalks, harbors and schools unless the assembly grants an exemption for special events. Anyone caught consuming marijuana could be fined up to $100, congruent with state law.

Sitka officials are also holding town hall meetings to piece together what the community wants in its marijuana regulation, including commercial use.

"We're going to have a community dialogue," said Municipal Administrator Mark Gorman. "We're certainly going to see what the State is going to promulgate (put into effect by official proclamation). But we want to be proactive and not reactive to what those regulations are."

Gorman said the Sitka Assembly will add to its marijuana ordinance with continued community input. The borough sent interim Planning Director Scott Brylinsky to Colorado earlier this month to attend the Marijuana Impact on Public Health and Safety Conference, which was also attended by Ketchikan's Planning and Community Development Director, Chris French.

Brylinsky helped draft the current version of the marijuana ordinance after attending the conference.

"Marijuana legalization is, in my opinion, a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift, and many Alaska communities are working on getting their heads around what it means and how best to approach it," Brylinsky said. "We can all learn from each other."

As far as public health and safety goes, Brylinsky recommended to Sitka officials that home production of THC extracts using flammable gasses or solvents be prohibited. He also recommended that marijuana-infused products–sometimes called consumables–be banned and to inhibit the number of plants an individual can grow for personal use-all safety concerns that have arisen after Colorado legalized marijuana at the start of 2014.

Petersburg Police Chief Kelly Swihart mentioned the same two safety concerns at the Jan. 20 assembly meeting in Petersburg.

The clock is ticking for the 29th Alaska legislature that has been tasked with coming up with a host of regulations related to the new law. They will determine everything from procedures for registering and operating a commercial marijuana enterprise to health and safety and labeling requirements.

The first session of the legislature began Jan. 20. By default the regulations will be adopted by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, though the legislature may opt to create a separate Marijuana Control Board.

If the legislature does not meet their nine month deadline to create regulations, local governments may establish their own regulations. If they do meet their deadline, the regulations are tentatively scheduled to go into effect in March 2016, with licenses for commercial operations awarded in May 2016.


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