The City of Sitka wants to have some regulations in place by the time the public use of marijuana becomes legal in Alaska on February 24.
At a Town Hall Meeting Monday night (1-19-15) residents had the chance to offer their opinions on where and if marijuana should be used in public places in the community.
And as you might expect with a controversial topic like marijuana, there were opinions to spare.
A draft of Sitka’s first-ever marijuana ordinance is scheduled to go before the assembly at their next regular meeting on January 27. The recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Alaska on February 24.
The statewide ballot proposition passed by voters last November defines public consumption, but doesn’t define public space.
That leaves all communities — not just Sitka — scrambling to come up with rules governing where it is legal to smoke — or ingest — marijuana.
Municipal attorney Robin Koutchak has already drafted an ordinance for marijuana. It’s based on Sitka’s existing rules covering where it’s legal to drink.
“So the starting point for the statute for alcohol is: You can’t consume alcohol outside of a building in the area zoned central business district. You can’t consume alcohol on any public street, alley, sidewalk, municipally-operated harbor walkway — things like that. We’re looking at the same thing for marijuana.”
And this is just the first step. Alaska’s statute opens the door to the commercialization of marijuana in 2016. City planner Scott Brylinsky recently attended a conference sponsored the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. He returned with some specific ideas about where Sitka should go next.
“Prohibit the home production of THC extracts using flammable gases or solvents. To prohibit marijuana-infused products which resemble commercial products — especially those which would be attractive to children. And to inhibit the gray-market: To limit the number of plants like Boulder and Denver have done.”
Brylinsky said that there had already been 30 home explosions — some fatal — in Colorado as a result of people attempting to extract THC from marijuana plants.
Brylinsky, Koutchak, school superintendent Mary Wegner, and police chief Sheldon Schmitt comprised the panel for the Town Hall Meeting.
Sitkans last November approved the marijuana legalization initiative by a 70-30 split. Koutchak said these numbers were driving her office toward creating regulations, rather than an outright ban, which was proposed in Anchorage and then dropped following the election.
About 75 residents attended the meeting. Koutchak said she felt that they represented opinion along a spectrum between the anti-marijuana propaganda film “Reefer Madness,” and the devil-may-care attitude of Cheech & Chong.
Resident Bobbi Daniels didn’t want the city to presume too much from the election results.
“Voting yes because the government’s job is not being a nanny, and what people do in the privacy of their own homes is their own business is hugely different than voting yes because you’re okay with recreational marijuana use. And I’m just hoping that you come down pretty heavy-handed on the definition of public use, because it will be a lot easier to lighten up those restrictions on down the road than it will be to tighten them up when the genie is out of the bottle.”
Health advocate Andrea Thomas said she voted yes on the ballot initiative because she felt it was wrong to keep sending people to prison. But, now that marijuana will be legal, she wanted to focus attention on another demographic.
“I think something we should keep in mind is How Do You Prevent Kids From Starting? There’s a lot of research on that and one is high price. High price and the social norm of it’s not acceptable. So I think not allowing it in any public place — bars, clubs — people can have it in their homes, their private yards. But I think public places should be out.”
Thomas’s position on kids had traction with the rest of the audience, but there was a difference of opinion on whether marijuana should be limited to homes. Attorney Denton Pearson said there were rules in Utah at one time for alcohol that might be a model for marijuana.
“In order to buy a mixed drink over the counter in Utah, you had to be a member of a private club.”
Pearson said that visitors could buy temporary memberships by producing proper identification. There were supporters for this idea — and a similar one called the “Amsterdam” model — in the audience.
Attorney Robin Koutchak wanted to find out how many.
“Could we have a show of hands? How many people in the room tonight would be in favor of Sitka having a private marijuana club, or allowing private marijuana clubs? There’s about 75 people in here and I’m not even going to begin counting hands, because it’s clearly a majority.”
It was Koutchak last summer who first suggested to the Sitka assembly that the marijuana initiative — if passed — represented a revenue opportunity. Several people at the Town Hall spoke in favor of taxing marijuana to support the rehabilitation of people suffering from drug addiction.
There’s also the possibility of taxing marijuana to support schools. Resident Robert Hattle, a nurse and board member of KCAW, thought this was a problem.
“We need money for schools, but I think there’s a real ethical disconnect there. We’re encouraging parents to use marijuana so we can afford the schools. I want parents home helping kids do homework, spending quality time with them — not paying taxes on marijuana.”
The attention on schools brought fisherman Eric Jordan to the microphone. He wondered aloud about an issue that did not get much attention during the legalization debate.
“Do we have comprehensive drug education programs as part of our health education programs? How are we going to be dealing with this? We’re going to be facing a world where instead of it’s illegal and we’re going to ignore it — how are we going to prepare our students?”
Superintendent Mary Wegner said Sitka Schools had never ignored drug issues. The district had routinely participated in studies of high-risk student behaviors, and had a good idea — across all demographics and achievement levels — of what students were doing.
But there was a significant gap.
“We do not have a K-12 health curriculum. So we may have to take a look and see what we can do to beef things up.”
As public meetings go, Sitka’s marijuana town hall was cordial. Residents seemed eager to embrace this new freedom responsibly. There was even humor, thanks to local fisherman and author Ron Rau, who contradicted police chief Sheldon Schmitt’s assertion that law enforcement would crackdown on drivers impaired by marijuana. He compared pot smokers to someone who gets behind the wheel after drinking.
“They get in the car and they want to see how fast it will go. How fast can we take that curve? Someone in the back will be saying Faster! Faster! Take kids that have been smoking — they’re doing 25 in a 45 mph zone! And someone in the back is saying Slow Down! Slow Down!”
Municipal attorney Robin Koutchak anticipated that this would be the first of many similar meetings as Sitka shaped its marijuana laws. Mayor Mim McConnell thanked the crowd for turning out, saying “We’ll work through this and see where we go.”