Ordinance would put commercial marijuana up for vote

People rushed to beat each other to the podium at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting Tuesday, eager to voice their opinions about whether commercial marijuana establishments should be illegal in the borough.

Nearly a hundred attendees, both for and against cannabis, packed the borough assembly chambers for the discussion of an ordinance that would ban the operation of commercial marijuana establishments outside the cities in the borough. Pro-marijuana activists tried to head off the ordinance, fighting against it being introduced in the first place.

The ordinance, proposed by Assembly President Blaine Gilman, would place the question on the Oct. 4, 2016, ballot of whether the assembly should take the local option of banning all commercial marijuana establishments in the borough outside the cities.

Gilman wrote in his memo to the assembly that numerous members of the public have approached him requesting that the borough assembly pass an ordinance banning all commercial marijuana establishments in the borough.

“Although the assembly is authorized to do this by law, in my opinion the better approach is to put this question out to the vote of the residents of the borough in the area outside the cities,” Gilman wrote.

Marijuana establishments would still be legal within city limits where the city governments have authorized it. They are currently legal with some limitations in Kenai, Seward, Seldovia and Homer. Soldotna has placed a two-year moratorium on all commercial marijuana establishments. Some Homer residents are attempting to place a question on the fall ballot to ban commercial activity in the city, and the Seldovia City Council plans to host a public forum on April 13 to gather feedback from the public on how to move forward.

However, operations in unincorporated communities would have to shut down or move. For Brian Ehlers, who plans to run a commercial growing operation in Kasilof, it would mean a huge financial loss. Because the borough did not ban it when legalization passed, he moved forward with applying for his license and preparing a facility.

He estimated that he has invested approximately $400,000 into the business at this point. If the ordinance passes and the question is introduced for a vote in October, he said it would unfairly delay his business operations and run up bills.

“They’re dragging this out further and further,” Ehlers said. “Just because they have to wait doesn’t mean I’m not getting bills every month.”

If the ordinance passes, he said he would probably weigh anchor and head to another state to run his business.

By the end of the meeting — which ended abruptly at midnight when Gilman was forced to end it by a defined time limit — 31 people had testified on the marijuana ordinance, 21 against and 10 in favor, as well as a host of submitted written comments.

Bob Thraves, a Soldotna resident, said he collected approximately 300 signatures on a petition in favor of placing the question on the ballot again. He testified to the assembly that he believes the residents of Kenai would vote to ban it if they were asked.

“I beg you, please, let us vote on this again,” Thraves said. “All these signatures you have before you were done in four days.”

The main bone of contention was whether the majority of voters on the peninsula supported the commercial legalization of marijuana during the 2014 election. The election results show a narrow margin — the proposition failed on the Kenai Peninsula by 165 votes. However, the places where it failed included central Kenai, Funny River, Sterling, Soldotna, Mackey Lake, Nikiski and Anchor Point. The other areas of the peninsula passed it.

If the ordinance passes and is placed on the ballot, residents of Soldotna, Kenai, Seldovia, Homer and Seward would not vote on it. Only residents of the borough outside the cities would be able to vote. Several public commenters raised this point and said it would be a waste of time to put the question on the ballot, as the people most likely to vote against it live in the cities and would not have a vote.

“When the people speak, you need to listen,” said George Pierce, a Kasilof resident. “The people voted — yes, they want marijuana, so why are we even here?”

Assembly member Wayne Ogle, who served on the Marijuana Task Force that developed the regulations, asked several testifiers if they believed the task force had taken sufficient action on the local option to control commercial marijuana.

Dave Nunley, who also served on the task force, said he thought the recommendations from the task force adequately served the local option. He asked why more people who opposed marijuana did not turn out during the Marijuana Task Force meetings to request a ban then rather than waiting until now.

“I would be offended now if this were to pass,” Nunley said. “It continues to be an issue when I just don’t think there’s an issue … because of this proposition, the threat of the black market growing is very real.”

Ogle asked the same question of Larry Simmons, who said he lived in the Mackey Lake area. Simmons asked the assembly to place the question on the ballot. He said he thought the task force had adequately addressed the local option but still wanted the chance to vote.

“I am pleased that there was work done, and should this go to vote and should the borough residents vote to permit commercialization, then I’ll be happy for the work that the Marijuana Task Force did,” Simmons said.

Because of the volume of public comments, the assembly did not take action on the ordinance, even to introduce it. The next scheduled meeting will take place in Seward on April 19, but Gilman said the assembly would only take public comment there and would delay any action to introduce the ordinance until the assembly returned to Soldotna on May 3.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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