Assembly votes 6-1 against retail marijuana opt out option
On November 4, 2014 614 Petersburg voters, 58 percent of those who turned out, scratched their pencils on a ballot, darkening a little oval marked ‘yes’ to Ballot Measure 2, titled “An Act to Tax and Regulate the Production, Sale and Use of Marijuana.”
In the description of the potential law, the first line of the ballot measure read, “This bill would tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana.”
According to Petersburg Borough data, 39 percent of voters turned out for the November 2014 election, which, besides the vote for borough incorporation, was the highest voter turnout in Petersburg since October 2000.
Despite the clear title and language of Ballot Measure 2, and the largest Petersburg voter turnout in more than 14 years, Assembly Member Kurt Wohlhueter said he’s heard from concerned Petersburg residents who don’t want retail marijuana in town or that although they voted for the ballot measure, they only voted to decriminalize it and didn’t know it would lead to marijuana retail establishments.
Wohlhueter proposed the assembly approve an opt-out option on this October’s ballot along with a list of questions regarding if and how marijuana should be implemented in Petersburg.
Last Monday during its June 6 meeting, Petersburg Borough Assembly members and concerned citizens aired their views and debated about all things cannabis, including the opt-out measure.
Some members of the public who supported an opt-out option used slippery slope arguments, blaming marijuana for their later addiction to methamphetamine, harder drugs and other personal problems. Others simply asserted Petersburg voters should have the option to opt-out.
Robert “Doc” Lopez, similar to others’ concerns about not being informed, said he felt “deceived” and was unaware there was even an option to opt-out of retail marijuana.
“I wasn’t informed,” Lopez said. “I didn’t know that it was a possibility. Everybody said it’s legal now so we’re going to go through this process. I felt that I had been deceived, that as a member of the public this was unknown to me. Had this been part of the whole process in its inception I’d have been more receptive to what might have come about.”
The option to opt-out, however, was plainly written in Ballot Measure 2’s language.
“The bill would allow a local government to prohibit the operation of marijuana-related entities,” the November 2014 ballot reads. “A local government could do that by enacting an ordinance or through voter initiative. The ordinances could cover the time, place, manner and registration of a marijuana entity’s operations.”
Petersburg resident Rick Fish supported an opt-out option and for other questions to be available on the October 2016 ballot.
“None of us are clairvoyant,” Fish said. “You can’t tell what I’m thinking unless I come and tell you. All we’re simply asking is to be asked what we want to do.”
Mayor Mark Jensen and Assembly Member Nancy Strand both said people have already had plenty of chances to answer those questions.
Of the three Marijuana Regulation Advisory Committee meetings and five marijuana subcommittee meetings that took place during the past year and a half, only three members of the public showed up to voice their opinion. The borough has also had a list of available questions regarding marijuana in Petersburg available on its website for residents to fill out and send to the assembly and it was on the Borough Assembly’s meeting agenda as a discussion item since last fall.
“I think they had plenty of opportunity during our committee work to ask questions and make suggestions and offer their opinions,” Strand said. “It smacks of apathy not to have done so then. I don’t think we should be held responsible for their apathy.”
Kurt said the option to opt-out was never considered at those meetings or on the questionnaire and that the survey was therefore unfair.
“Here’s something to consider Kurt,” Assembly Member Cindi Lagoudakis said. “We had several people stand up and say, ‘I didn’t pay attention to this issue, I didn’t read the paper. I didn’t know about this,’ and honestly I don’t know if those people voted in the election,” Lagoudakis said. “However, I do know what the voters said as a result of the election and that’s what I’m going to use in making my decision on this.”
Assembly Member Jeigh Stanton Gregor made a similar point earlier in the meeting and brought up Wohlhueter’s protest that the voter turnout during the 2014 election was too low to get an accurate picture of what Petersburg residents wanted.
“I want to reiterate: the people of Petersburg voted already to allow this on a commercial level, very clearly, very loudly,” Stanton Gregor said. “…We can quibble about the numbers and the turnout but those are just details. It was a very large victory giving us a mandate to carry out the will of the people at this point.”
Chelsea Tremblay said during public comment that it’s time to move forward with how marijuana is implemented.
“We have elections, they happen, then we deal with the consequences,” Tremblay said. “So right now the question is how do we regulate it, which I don’t think is what should be on the ballot. That’s what committee meetings, zoning meetings, all of these meetings over the past year have been for.”
Retired Petersburg School District teacher Sally Riemer said when she heard about the issue, she didn’t feel she had enough information to form an educated opinion.
“And so I went to the library and started doing some research and I have found a book for everybody,” Reimer said of a book critical of the drug war and the way society views addiction. “I haven’t made up my mind yet but I’m halfway through the book and I have learned a lot so I would encourage you to educate yourselves more before we have to make a decision in this town.”
Suzanne Wood read the same book as Riemer, ‘Chasing the Scream’ by Johann Hari, and was against an opt-out. She addressed Wohlhueter’s question of whether or not the Petersburg Borough should opt out of retail marijuana.
“Consider this rephrasing: Should the Petersburg Borough opt for continuation of status quo sales of drug cartel and or black market supplied recreational sales of marijuana into our community?” Wood asked.
Other members of the public, such as Cindy Lynn, said they didn’t mind if individuals choose to use marijuana but didn’t want to see a retail shop downtown and supported an opt-out option.
“I believe a person, in their own home if it’s not against the law or unsafe, it should be an American right,” Lynn said.
The Petersburg Borough Assembly voted 6-1 against adding an opt-out option and other questions to October’s ballot and unanimously voted in its second reading for a marijuana ordinance that largely reflects the borough’s alcohol ordinance.
The Borough Assembly will take additional public comment and vote for the marijuana ordinance in its third and final reading at its next meeting this month.
The assembly’s vote doesn’t guarantee an opt-out option is off the table. According to the ballot measure and state regulations, a citizen’s initiative is an option available and a local government can vote to prohibit commercial marijuana establishments at any time.