Local governments weigh onsite cannabis consumption options

  • This Jan. 18, 2017, photo shows marijuana including the store’s best-seller, Gorilla Glue, available for sale at Rainforest Farms, owned by James and Giono Barrett in Juneau. The Barrett brothers have a dream: that some of the scores of cruise ship passengers who crowd the streets of the state capital each summer will one day use their shore excursions to kick back and light up a joint in a pot store’s lounge. Although the state Marijuana Control Board has authorized onsite consumption, many local governments around the state are moving to prohibit it, including in Juneau. (Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP)

As the Marijuana Control Board is working on hemming up the regulations for on-site consumption, local governments are wrestling with how to handle their own rules.

Cannabis entrepreneurs have long awaited state regulations allowing their customers to partake at retail locations. The board approved an initial set of regulations in December, with requirements such as only allowing smoking in a freestanding building with ventilation and limitations on individual consumption.

Business owners said this would provide a more reasonable place, especially for tourists, to partake responsibly without violating laws against consuming in public.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer signed the regulations in early March, but the MCB has a few more changes to make, including defining what a “freestanding” building is and allowing more voice for residents of areas outside the jurisdiction of a local government.

However, city and borough governments are deciding whether to let the state regulations stand or enact their own. There has already been a wide variety of opinions, ranging from applying no additional regulations to completely banning it within city borders. Fairbanks has already tackled it, while Anchorage and Kenai have ordinances pending and the City and Borough of Juneau is still considering information.

The Anchorage Assembly was originally set to consider an ordinance to just allow the consumption of edible cannabis products on site, but a second ordinance would have allowed smoking in facilities as long as they met other requirements, including those for freestanding buildings and ventilation. Consideration of the ordinance was postponed at its May 21 meeting.

One of the snags in approving onsite consumption is the state law banning smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces. Under the state law, the definition could include smoke from marijuana products and outdoor areas may be permitted under the law.

However, the onsite consumption rules passed by the Marijuana Control Board would allow for the smoking of marijuana products as long as the facility has proper ventilation and is freestanding, with a smoke-free area for employees to monitor the activities in the consumption area.

In late April, the Fairbanks City Council adopted an ordinance to permit onsite consumption as long as licensees met the other requirements for an endorsement through the Marijuana Control Board. Fairbanks City Attorney Paul Ewers said the city would probably defer to the state’s enforcement of the non-smoking law, as it’s not a city ordinance.

“If it was a city ordinance, we definitely would (enforce it),” he said. “Our approach as a city would probably look to the state attorney general.”

The City and Borough of Juneau is debating the same point about the smoking law. City Attorney Robert Palmer wrote in a memo to the council that if the members want to approve the consumption of cannabis by smoking in onsite consumption endorsements, they’ll have to have a “rational argument to distinguish marijuana from tobacco” or allow both.

Currently, Juneau bans all onsite consumption by ordinance, and Palmer wrote that he wasn’t aware of a tobacco consequence if the edibles portion is repealed.

“However, the definition of edibles would need to be narrow to avoid vaping and other inhalation forms of consumption that can affect nearby people,” he wrote.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Kenai City Council rejected a regulations package for onsite marijuana consumption within its city limits and introduced an ordinance at its May 15 meeting to ban it entirely. The council referred the ordinance to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, as it required a zoning code change, and is scheduled to hear it again June 5.

“We feel this ordinance is necessary to protect public safety and welfare,” wrote council members Glenese Pettey and Jim Glendening in their co-sponsors’ memo.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is not currently conducting any specific research into the effects of secondhand exposure to marijuana smoke, but DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum and Division of Public Health Director Jay Butler wrote a joint opinion article in December 2018 opposing the onsite consumption of cannabis, noting that some studies indicate little difference between the effects of inhalation of tobacco and marijuana smoke.

The department leans on three main bodies of existing research about the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke, DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett said in an email. Two of the studies — one from the World Health Organization in 2016 and two from the state of Colorado in 2014 and 2016 — indicate that secondhand cannabis smoke impairs lung function and contain many of the same cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke, he wrote.

The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office is seeing public comment on its draft regulation revisions for onsite consumption — including further definitions for “freestanding” and setting up a process to give residents outside a local government’s jurisdiction a way to weigh in on an onsite consumption endorsement — until June 19.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/29/2019 - 8:31am

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