Anchorage’s marijuana industry is set to begin, with a final package of municipal requirements coming weeks before the Marijuana Control Board starts accepting licenses on Feb. 24.
Anchorage tightened certain regulations while holding off on others. New regulations increase buffer zones in Chugiak and Eagle River, add new buffer zone triggers to Anchorage marijuana businesses, bar small-scale commercial home grows, prohibit onsite consumption, and redraft the measurement standard between marijuana businesses and sensitive areas.
Most restrictively, property buffer distances have changed. The Assembly narrowly approved a 500-foot separation distance from schools, which halved the earlier proposed 1,000-foot separation. However, that distance is no longer measured by the shortest pedestrian route, but “as the crow flies,” and from property line to property line instead of from entrance to entrance.
This shortens distances some marijuana upstarts said they’d already counted on having nailed down, and nixes marijuana facilities adjacent to a sensitive area's property line.
“Many of my clients’ spaces were fine this morning,” said Jana Weltzin, a marijuana business attorney. “And as of tonight, many are now back to square one after months of careful property location scouting and efforts.”
Weltzin said the Assembly’s final regulations make the industry impracticable — echoing earlier claims that the Assembly opens itself to legal challenge.
Assembly members emphasized that the ordinances will be an ongoing project and certainly be revised as time passes. Members maintained earlier sentiments about wanting to start slowly with the new industry, rather than open floodgates too quickly and have to scale them back. Caution, they said, should not be misinterpreted as antagonism.
“Politics is the art of the possible,” said chairman Dick Traini. “It’s a compromise. We’ve got a better document now. We’re going to have to tweak it. We want to see you guys successful.”
Restrictions tempered an early concession to cannabis industry concerns.
Introduced by assemblyman Patrick Flynn, an amendment recalls the city’s earlier insistence that it avoid federal scrutiny with a 1,000-foot buffer zone from schools.
Flynn argued that the best way to thwart the black market is to make the industry as easy as possible for the regulated market. With a land crunch in Anchorage making retail and industrial space scarce, Flynn said the industry needs more lax rules to avoid being priced out of existence.
“There’s just limited land available in the Anchorage Bowl,” said Flynn. “We’re already seeing a premium charged on facilities available under the 1,000-foot standard.”
Members Amy Demboski and Paul Honeman both argued the federal government’s scrutiny should steer the Assembly to caution, but member Bill Evans said the fear is misplaced; if the feds want to bust marijuana businesses, they need little reason, as the substance is still federally illegal. Encouraging the regulated market, he said, will help the schools’ children more than a 1,000-foot distance.
“The feds can (shut down a business) if they make it 10 miles away,” said Evans. “The regulated industry doesn’t sell to kids, whereas the black market does…the 500 limitation…is the safest way for the kids; 1,000 feet, I’m not sure there’s any magic, really, about that distance.”
Cannabis less welcome in Chugiak and Eagle River
Several amendments introduced by Demboski effectively zoned Chugiak and Eagle River out of the industry, according to marijuana industry stakeholders. Demboski, who attended meetings with Eagle River community council last weekend, said she chose conservative rules specifically to meet the needs of the community she represents. Her district largely disapproved of legalization.
“This is one of those moments, this night, there may be some things I would do differently if I was acting individually,” said Demboski at the meeting’s prelude.
Eagle River residents looking to enter the legal marijuana market said they feel cheated as Anchorage taxpayers.
“I feel like an overprotected Eagle River child that’s not able to participate in the recreational marijuana market,” said Jessica Jansen, co-founder of Canna Farm Co-op.
Demboski submitted a battery of amendments with varying degrees of success. Some, like a 500-foot buffer for video arcades, died a quick death with a majority vote against it.
Others received more consideration and more favorable votes. In the end, Demboski succeeded in securing a 1,000-foot buffer from an Eagle River community center, a removal of marijuana retail stores from all B-3 zones in Chugiak and Eagle River, and a 1,000-foot buffer from all dedicated parks in Chugiak and Eagle River.
Other Demboski amendments applied to Anchorage at large and revived previous restrictions the Assembly’s Planning and Zoning Commission had stripped out of its recommendation to the Assembly. Demboski tried to reinstate a buffer trigger for dedicated parks — of which Anchorage has roughly 10,000 acres — but was voted down.
The Assembly forwarded the special land use package to the Planning and Zoning Commission late last year, complete with the setbacks for parks, childcare centers, and homeless shelters. After a round of outraged industry comment, the commission loosened some of the proposals in their final recommendation to the Assembly.
Another amendment introduced by Demboski added childcare facilities back into the buffer zone. The Planning and Zoning Commission had stripped this provision out of the assembly’s packet earlier after industry complaints that the measure would remove too much available land. These specifically apply to businesses license to provide care for nine or more children, according to Demboski.
Demboski admitted during debate that she disagreed with the Planning and Zoning team’s recommendations, saying they “drastically altered” the Assembly’s “original intent.”
The ballot initiative included an opt-out clause for localities, and several have already done so. Chugiak and Eagle River, however, are not their own municipalities or villages. Traini said closing off specific areas for specific businesses is allowed by Title 21.
Pot clubs and home grows
Pot Luck Events — the Anchorage marijuana club that allows members to bring and share product — will continue operations for now.
The Assembly opted not to go through with ban on clubs, which are neither prohibited nor approved by state regulations. However, the Assembly did opt to prohibit state-regulated onsite consumption licenses, saying they plan to review the state’s final provisions when licenses become available.
Assembly regulations also put a halt on small marijuana cultivators.
An amendment to allow limited commercial marijuana grows in residential areas failed. Pete Petersen, the amendment’s author, said he wanted to acknowledge a reality of the black market and try to collect tax dollars the city may be missing.
“The more of the black market growers that become legitimate business people, the more taxes the municipality is going to collect,” said Petersen. “Right now, there are no warehouses growing marijuana. All the marijuana being grown in Anchorage is grown in residential areas. It’s been going on for decades.”
The amendment failed overwhelmingly on a 9-2 vote, however. Assembly members acknowledged the same black market reality, but said the dynamics change when people openly profit from it.
“People do not want this in residential areas,” said Hall. “I understand what Mr. Petersen is saying. I think it becomes a totally different situation when you legalize them and everybody knows they’re there.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]