Assembly members vote against marijuana license based on personal objection

Local governments in Alaska have the right to object to proposed marijuana licenses, but only if the marijuana business violates state or local law.

So what happens when local government officials object to the idea of marijuana businesses in general?

The topic came up for debate at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s meeting Tuesday during a normal procedure for the assembly to approve a letter of nonobjection for a marijuana license in Homer. The assembly officially adopted commercial marijuana business regulations in February 2016, with few additional stipulations atop the state’s existing rules other than staying in compliance with taxes, not causing parking in borough rights of way, following a submitted site plan and not operating between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m.

However, assembly member Stan Welles of Sterling pulled the approval of the license off the assembly’s consent agenda — a group of typically non-controversial proposals and motions that are approved as a batch to save time at the beginning of each meeting — because of a personal objection to legalized marijuana. Several of his family members were affected by drugs and he asked to abstain from the vote. Told he could not abstain from a vote that he did not have conflict of interest on, he voted against the license.

“I just don’t have the stomach to be party to perpetrating this carnage upon the youth and families of our borough and state,” he said.

Welles regularly pulls approval of marijuana licenses off the consent agenda and votes against them. Welles sparked controversy last spring when he circulated a letter in his own neighborhood asking residents if they would support forming a local option zone banning commercial marijuana from the area, amid debates both on marijuana regulations and a rewrite of the local option zone code.

Often, the votes have been 8-1, with only Welles opposing approval of the license. This time, though, assembly members Paul Fischer and Kenn Carpenter lent their support, making the vote a closer 6-3.

Assembly president Kelly Cooper clarified that the assembly is obliged to vote to support the license unless the business is violating one of the state or local codes.

“If anyone has questions on what the parameters are for us, how we should be voting on cannabis issues based on the code that’s in place, please notify the clerk or legal,” she said to the assembly members after the vote.

The Marijuana Control Board, a five-member board composed of people from all over the state, is the last voice on business licenses. The board has denied licenses before — last November, the board voted not to grant Wild Flower Holdings in Anchorage a license because of concerns over outside investment, a key reason for the residency requirement for marijuana business licenses in Alaska. The board members could decide to overturn a local government’s objection.

Erika McConnell, the director of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, said the Marijuana Control Board would deny a license if a local government objects unless the board finds the objection “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable,” which is the language included in the statute. The criteria for those terms, though, are unclear.

“I don’t see that any of those terms are defined in the marijuana regulations specifically,” she said.

The tension between those who opposed recreational legalization at all and those who supported it still crackles in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. A group of petitioners narrowly missed the deadline to get a proposition banning commercial marijuana operations in the borough onto the ballot for the October 2016 election, sending it down the road to take place on the October 2017 ballot. The vote will determine whether commercial cannabis businesses can operate in the borough outside city limits, which include the majority of cannabis businesses currently open.

The Kenai Peninsula isn’t the only area with a cannabis vote coming up. The City of Valdez will decide whether to allow commercial cannabis operations within city limits in its upcoming election on May 2, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough residents will decide whether to allow commercial marijuana operations in the borough outside the cities of North Pole and Fairbanks in the borough’s regular election in October.

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

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