Cannabis proponents and opponents came together for a town hall meeting Tuesday in Kenai to begin the discussion of how the community can move forward after Alaskans voted to legalize marijuana.
More than 120 people filled the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai to listen, and share information, experiences and concerns about marijuana at a forum organized by the Kenai Community Coalition on Cannabis. Soldotna lawyer Eric Derleth and Marc Theiler, who manages a family law firm with his wife Shana Theiler, formed the coalition to begin an exchange of information with community members and lawmakers as the state works to create regulations.
Derleth opened the meeting with an outline of the initiative and presented his research on how other parts of the country have developed regulations to address concerns like packaging and marketing that would keep marijuana out of children’s hands.
“We want to be a more responsible industry and honor the values of people I’ve met in all the years I’ve consumed cannabis,” Derleth said. “We don’t want people running around endangering our community. We want to be a positive part of the community and I think we can be with everyone’s input.”
After going over a drafted code of ethics and goals of the coalition, Derleth opened the floor to questions and comments from the audience.
The first four people who spoke said they voted against legalized marijuana and each shared their concerns. Nikiski resident Larry Shafer wanted to know how marijuana could be transported to remote Alaska villages on a boat when the U.S. Coast Guard follows federal law. Shafer said he viewed marijuana as a gateway drug to harder illegal substances, something he has seen his stepdaughter fall into.
Cliff Smith, a former marijuana user, asked if the marijuana sales tax revenues would outweigh the cost of addiction and other negative consequences. He said legalization could increase accidents on the job and the highways.
“I used to smoke on a daily basis and it didn’t do me any good,” he said. “Two communities (Homer and Seward) voted for it. The rest of us didn’t want it. What’s wrong with letting those communities have it and wait and see the effects? I think we would be better off.”
As the meeting progressed more marijuana advocates spoke up and shared their positive experiences of the medical benefits.
Kenai resident Robyn Sullens said she came out about her marijuana use to her peers a few months ago during a chamber of commerce meeting. As a parent she said she didn’t smoke around her two children but explained to them that some adults use it in the privacy in their home because “not all laws are right.” With her kids now adults she said she has educated them on responsible safe use.
“I’m a marijuana smoker asking for individual choice,” she said. “We don’t have to hide in our house and lie anymore.”
Retired lawyer Chuck Robinson said he would like to see the coalition continue to educate people on marijuana because what he described as “superstition” about the drug has led to bad policy. He said the meeting felt similar to another social movement.
“I don’t want to insult anybody but this reminds me of people coming out of the closet,” Robinson said. “I’m willing to come out of the closet.”
Derleth said, “Chuck, are you gay?”
Robinson replied, “No, but I’m high.”
In response to some views of marijuana as a gateway drug that hinders people from being productive members of society, Robinson said his experience is an example of that being a false perception.
Robinson was first exposed to marijuana while growing up in New York City. At age 14 he lived in a housing project in Brooklyn. He said he used to watch a heroin addict who would sit on a bench and doze off for long periods of time, which sold it for him how dangerous the hardcore drugs were.
“If that’s all you’re going to do is nod off, I don’t want any part of it,” he said. “… The superstition that (marijuana) holds people back is simply not true. What holds people back is personality. … I would like to see this coalition educating the community, state, even the nation.”
Kasilof resident George Pierce said it didn’t make any sense to him that alcohol and tobacco, which kill people can be legal, but marijuana, which is effective for treating cancer and other diseases, is illegal.
“Voters voted for (marijuana) by a large margin,” he said. “It would be nice if our elected officials would honor the will of the people. It is really sad to see so many people misinformed. It’s not the evil weed everybody thinks.”
Among those in attendance were state Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. Kenai Peninsula Borough government representatives included assembly members Wayne Ogle, Blaine Gilman, Kelly Wolf and borough Mayor Mike Navarre. Several Kenai city administrators and council members came to the meeting to hear from the public on the subject.
Wolf said he came to the meeting to listen because he hasn’t heard from anyone in favor of legalization. A majority of the central Kenai Peninsula voted no on legalization a fact that cannot be overlooked, he said.
“My concern is cultivation,” he said. “We have no zoning (for marijuana farms) in the borough. It terrifies me what our government may see if this goes forward.”
Wolf said he is working to craft a borough ordinance that would make marijuana cultivation for intent to resale illegal and plans to bring it up as a voter initiative for the people to decide. While he doesn’t dispute the medical benefits of cannabis or have an issue with people growing for their personal use, large pot farms could have a negative impact of neighborhood property value, he said.
Wolf said he plans to introduce the ordinance early 2015 and give the assembly time to discuss the issue.
“I don’t want nine individuals to make the decision,” he said. “It needs to be decided by the people.”
Theiler said while a lot of good dialogue was initiated during the first coalition meeting, he said he would have liked to hear more critical opposition. He said for the next meeting in January the coalition would put together an advisory board that would work in groups to address some of the concerns.
Theiler said they would continue to invite elected officials, judges, law enforcement, healthcare workers and substance abuse counselors to get a better sense from professionals what unforeseen problems that be addressed.
Between the comments heard at the town hall meeting and the decision by the Anchorage Assembly to kill the ordinance proposed to ban marijuana sales, Alaskans have made it clear they want to preserve their individual freedoms, he said.
“The big thing we heard is educating people and we will continue to break down concerns people have and work toward solutions,” he said. “I’m hoping with Anchorage and what we had here sent a clear message to legislators.”