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Council Delays On-site Cannabis Consumption Ordinance Decision, Considers Ballot Measure

The Fairbanks City Council postponed a final vote Monday on a proposed ordinance that would permit authorized cannabis retail shops in town to offer on-site consumption of marijuana. If approved, Fairbanks would become the first city in Alaska to allow on-site consumption. But as KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports, the council may now consider asking voters to make the decision.

A majority of the council decided to delay the vote after lengthy debate that followed more than an hour of testimony on both sides of the issue. Among those who spoke against the ordinance was Blake Burley, who told council members they should re-criminalize marijuana instead of allowing on-site consumption, which he believes would encourage more cannabis use.

“Anytime we open up a substance like this and make it more readily available more able for people to go, more people are going to use it,” Burley said.

Other opponents, like Eric Zweifel cited concerns stated by city police Chief Eric Jewkes and others over Fairbanks’s ability to deal with an increase in driving-under-the-influence arrests that they believe would come with on-site consumption.

“We can’t even have our own potholes fixed in parts of our city (at) some times of the year,” Zweifel said.

Police Lt. Dan Welborn told council members the number of DUI arrests in Fairbanks has risen recently, from 182 in 2016 to 282 in 2018. Wellborn says impaired drivers often use both alcohol and other drugs. But he says it’s hard to determine whether they’ve used cannabis, because there’s no widely accepted device to use in field-sobriety tests for marijuana use. And he says the tests conducted to detect alcohol use by drivers usually are halted when the driver has been found to be impaired.

“There may be drug involvement, and we question them about that,” Welborn said. “... But we don’t necessarily give a drug test at that point.”

But those favoring adoption of the ordinance, like Pearson Kennedy-Crosby, say that because marijuana is legal, it makes sense to allow on-site consumption, because many people need a place to consume it.

“I believe it’s both irresponsible and impractical to legalize cannabis and not give us a legal, designated place to use it,” Kennedy-Crosby said.

Councilwoman Shoshana Kun says that’s the main reason she wrote the ordinance that would amend the City Code, which now bans on-site consumption. She says she’s heard that from many area residents, especially those who rent an apartment or have other limitations on when and where they can smoke cannabis.

“We as a city are offering a product that currently can lead to fines or eviction,” Kun said. “We have an ethical duty to listen to constituents and represent them all.”

Kun says on-site consumption at retail cannabis stores also would offer a place for tourists to light up. Councilwoman Kathryn Ottersten says she co-introduced the ordinance with Kun in hopes it would enable disadvantaged people to benefit from therapeutic cannabis use.

“We wind up in a situation where certain people who are able to be in homes, and own them, have access to alternative ways of helping them, healthwise, that other people do not,” Ottersten said.

But council members Jerry Cleworth, David Pruhs, June Rogers and Valerie Therrien all said they would not vote for the ordinance. Most cited the public safety concerns raised by Chief Jewkes and public health issues such as the potential harm of passive smoke. Pruhs says his opposition stems from his belief that the measure would unfairly exempt up to eight cannabis retailers from the state’s smoke-free workplace laws.

“And I cannot do that,” Pruhs said. “I cannot give them a special privilege.”

Cleworth pointed out that the language in the 2014 ballot measure that legalized marijuana states it would not also legalize public consumption. He says it’s a big problem downtown, where he owns and operates a rare-coin shop. But he conceded in an exchange with marijuana industry representative Brandon Emmett that the language could be interpreted differently.

“What did that mean to you?” Cleworth said.

“I would think that would mean people not walking down the sidewalk, smoking marijuana cigarettes,” Emmett replied.

“Oh,” Cleworth said. “Come visit my store.”

“Well, if you support this ordinance, then you’ll probably have less people smoking in the green spaces,” Emmett said.

Emmett and councilmembers Kun and Ottersten all said the city’s on-site consumption ban contradicts the main principle of the 2014 legalization ballot measure, which was to regulate marijuana like alcohol. But the council majority’s concerns over public safety and public health    led them to vote 4-to-2 to postpone a final vote until the April 22nd meeting, when they’re likely to propose a substitute version of the ordinance that will ask voters to decide the issue in this fall’s municipal election.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.