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By Dan Rudy 

Public forays into cannabis pros and cons

 


Though it has discussed the matter before, the City and Borough Assembly held its first public workshop fully devoted to cannabis since its legalization was approved by referendum.

The Tuesday evening meeting was intended to get members thinking about current regulations, as well as to gather input from residents.

“It's a discussion. No decisions will be made here tonight,” Mayor David Jack told the mostly-filled chamber at City Hall.

Economic development coordinator Carol Rushmore had prepared maps of the city, roughly outlining the 500-foot distance required by state law between marijuana-related establishments and religious assemblies, schools, playgrounds, youth centers and correctional facilities.

Her reading of the restriction is that the 500 feet are measured by pedestrian access rather than as the crow flies, from the entrances of churches or recreation centers and from school property lines to the entrances of marijuana-related establishments.

The majority of Front Street falls within 500 feet of either the Catholic or Presbyterian churches, or the middle and high schools. A possible exception is the former hotel behind the Diamond C Restaurant, which Rushmore said she would need to verify with a measuring reel.

The Planning and Zoning Commission at its last meeting began discussing different zones under ordinance, whether these would allow for differing classes of cannabis retailers, cultivators and so forth, and under what conditions. A workshop of its own is planned for this evening at 6 p.m., to further evaluate zoning applications and to take public feedback. Commission chair Terri Henson explained they hoped to have everything worked out in two or three months.

“Part of this won't have anything to do with us,” she added. This includes additional taxes and restrictions the Assembly sees fit to impose on the drug, as well as whether limitations to the type and number of different licenses should be in effect within the borough.

“I'm trying to look at what other communities are doing. We don't want to reinvent the wheel,” said Carol Rushmore.

For example, Craig's city council adopted an ordinance last month prohibiting the cultivation, manufacture and testing of marijuana products, but not commercial retail sales. Further changes to its code are being considered which would allow such establishments within commercial, marine-industrial and industrial zones.

Rushmore cautioned against trying too much too quickly, and recommended proceeding along zoning lines. “We can try to make this really simple – which is my goal – or you can make this really complicated,” she said.

On Planning and Zoning, Jim Shoemaker spoke up in favor of pursing some method of information-sharing between communities as the state moves forward with greater legalization.

Last month the Alaska Marijuana Control Board (MCB) began accepting applications for licenses, including three from Wrangell business owner Kelsey Martinsen for retail, concentrate manufacturing and cultivation.

Invited to describe what he envisions by Assembly member Dave Powell, Martinsen explained he wants to maintain a small retail shop behind the Diamond C, and would use the other two licenses for a small-scale, 45-plant cultivation and the extraction of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) for oils and resins. Under those licenses, his business could not produce edibles, which would require a separate manufacturing license, but he could sell such products. However, the growing and extracting could not take place at the commercially-zoned location under current ordinance.

One of the primary goals of the workshop was to invite public comment, and more than several opinions were shared.

Several were optimistic of the opportunities presented by retailing the drug. Pharmacist Steve Cole anecdotally recounted changes he had noticed when visiting Colorado before voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 and since.

“I really noticed the change in the economy down there,” he said. “Things have really filled up. There's a lot of new businesses. It's nothing to be afraid of.”

Cole felt such shops might give a similar boost to the local economy, but cautioned against levying new taxes or restrictions too soon.

“I urge the city mainly just to stay out of this, because it's hard enough establishing a new business anyway,” he said.

Fisherman Gig Decker saw a more regulated retail system as an opportunity to draw marijuana away from criminal influence.

“I want to applaud the people that come forward and want to bring this out in the open.” Decker also expressed the hope that it might also bring to light substance abuse issues, and with that treatment and public discourse.

Other speakers were more critical of the prospect. Former state Rep. Peggy Wilson expressed concern about various health risks associated with cannabis use, citing studies she found online linking it to cancer risk and changes in the brain.

“It backed up my feelings,” she said of the articles. Wilson also thought having marijuana retailers would set a bad example for children, and make it more easily obtainable.

“I really don't want it in a downtown area,” Wilson said.

“I am strongly opposed to any business in Wrangell,” said another resident, Janet Strom. “I think it would take away from the image and culture that we have.”

She pointed out less than half of Wrangell's registered voters participated in the October 2014 election that included legalizing recreational marijuana, and recommended holding a new vote among community members.

“It was their choice not to vote,” Jack rebutted. He pointed out that of those that did vote, around 57 percent had been in favor of legalization. “That issue is kind of a dead issue as far as I'm concerned.”

Assembly member Stephen Prysunka noted there was also a double standard for marijuana, as alcohol and even tobacco do not have similar distance restrictions in place, and businesses selling them are almost exclusively downtown. He said the state's restrictions also left questions open as to what constitutes a church, and questioned whether marijuana usage is necessarily incompatible with all faiths.

“I have some concerns about that – I guess it's at a state level,” Prysunka admitted.

“There are a lot of rules around this,” said Assembly member Julie Decker. From her point of view, she felt the Assembly should approach the question with caution.

As promised, no decisions were made during the workshop. However, the

discussions may help influence future decisions.

 

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