It’s official. After three hearings at the Assembly table — plus one town hall meeting — Sitka on Tuesday night (2-24-15) passed one of the first marijuana ordinances in the state.
Sitka’s rules-of-the-road for marijuana use go something like this: if you’re over 21, you can smoke pot — or eat it, or otherwise ingest it — but pretty much only at home.
The statewide ballot measure legalizing marijuana specifically prohibited public consumption, and Sitka’s ordinance defines “public” broadly. So, no smoking on the sidewalk or in public parks, on school grounds or in harbors. Any “municipally controlled area open to the general public” is off limits, but so is most private property, if it’s used by the public. That includes most businesses, from banks and stores to bars, restaurants, and movie theaters.
Anyone found in violation of the ordinance faces a fine of up to $100. Meanwhile, it remains a criminal offense to drive under the influence, or give marijuana to anyone under 21. And the ordinance only covers the personal use of the drug; buying and selling pot will remain illegal until sometime next year.
The Sitka ordinance passed on the same day that the state issued its own emergency regulations. Early Tuesday morning, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board issued a “finding of emergency,” noting that the statewide statute had banned public consumption without defining what’s “public” — exactly the problem the Sitka ordinance was designed to address.
The Board wrote that “testimony before the legislature and local governing bodies has revealed widespread concern that” without more guidance, law enforcement wouldn’t be able to enforce the new law, “and that confusion and disorder will result, putting the public at risk.”
The emergency regulation defines “in public” as “a place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access and includes highways, transportation facilities, schools, places of amusement or business, parks, playgrounds, prisons, and hallways, lobbies and other portions of apartment houses and hotels not constituting rooms or apartments designed for actual residence.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly, Member Michelle Putz asked which of the two laws would take precedence. City Attorney Robin Koutchak said, essentially, whichever one’s more restrictive.
“Where ours is stricter, then ours controls,” Koutchak said. “Where theirs is stricter, theirs controls.”
“If ours was a lot less restrictive, then we might be looking at some problems,” she added. “But we did it right. Ours is more restrictive.”
Mayor Mim McConnell warned that the ordinance is likely the first of many, as Sitka faces a series of decisions, including whether to allow the commercial sale of pot.
“We’re not done dealing with this issue,” McConnell said. “We’ve got some major decisions to make in the coming year, and we all need to get on the same page. We need to all have the same information and it needs to all be based on fact.”
To that end, the Assembly directed the Health Needs and Human Services Commission to organize a town hall on the pros and cons of marijuana use.
While 70% of Sitka voters favored legalizing marijuana last November, the only two members of the public to speak on Tuesday expressed reservations about the new regime. Resident Nancy Yaw Davis stated her disappointment most succinctly: Alaska, she said, will now be famous “for pot, and for Palin.”
The Sitka Assembly also approved a proposal to make it easier for residents to add units to single-family homes. The ordinance would simplify the approval process for a mother-in-law apartment or tiny house, with the goal of creating more affordable housing options in town.
Meanwhile, a proposal to slow land sales at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park failed by a vote of 4- 2. The Assembly also gave final approval to an ordinance dissolving the Sitka Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.