Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, hosted a legislative town hall meeting on Saturday March 21, 2015 in Soldotna, Alaska. Residents asked them to balance the budget responsibly, carefully consider marijuana regulations and to look into Medicaid expansion.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, hosted a legislative town hall meeting on Saturday March 21, 2015 in Soldotna, Alaska. Residents asked them to balance the budget responsibly, carefully consider marijuana regulations and to look into Medicaid expansion.

Community talks marijuana, agriculture, film and tax cuts during town hall

  • By Rashah McChesney
  • Monday, March 23, 2015 12:25am
  • News

Distilled down to a few concepts, community members told their local legislators that they’d like to see the state spend more responsibly — maybe with an eye toward a few local special interests — and that marijuana regulation needed careful attention, though how new rules should be split between personal consumption, medical use and potential criminalization was far from clear.

More than 30 community members attended a legislative town hall meeting on Saturday at the Kenai Peninsula Borough building with Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. The two heard from a variety of community members on the importance of agriculture, food security, marijuana use and laws, film and the potential for tax cuts to both help and hurt the state.

Chenault and Olson first discussed progress on the Alaska LNG project and the ongoing spat between House leaders and Gov. Bill Walker on the state’s role in developing a gas pipeline project.

After Walker announced in late February that he supported both the Alaska LNG project and a smaller state-backed pipeline intended to supply Alaskans with gas much faster — Chenault introduced legislation that would limit the role of a state-backed corporation in the smaller gas project.

“We are a 25 percent owner of AK LNG and what (the Governor) said was that it would be a race to the finish, whichever of the two projects gets to the finish line first,” Chenault said.

“That’s who the state of Alaska would support.”

Chenault said the state should not be competing with itself and that his legislation was intended to keep the Alaska LNG project moving forward while giving confidence to the corporations developing the $45-$85 billion dollar mega-project.

“Uncertainty will kill a project quicker than anything,” Chenault said as several in the room muttered their assent.

Kenai City Manager Rick Koch told Chenault and Olson that he supported the legislation and how quickly the House responded to Walker’s announcement.

“I’m left shaking my head at the governor’s actions,” he said. “(Chenault’s bill) is absolutely critical to any success of the AK LNG project moving forward … It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to go in competition with ourselves.”

Several people weighed in on the Ballot Measure 2, which Alaskan’s supported to legalize marijuana in the state.

JR Meyers, a Constitution Party candidate for Governor of Alaska during the 2014 election, told Chenault and Olson that while he had opposed the ballot measure, he felt the legislature needed to support he will of the people.

Karolee Hansen, of Kenai, said she was concerned that legalization meant that marijuana would be grown on the Kenai Peninsula.

“I just think it would make it more easily accessible, especially I’m thinking about our younger people and I’m just concerned about that,” she said.

Hansen said she wanted the borough to be given an opportunity to vote on marijuana cultivation.

“I’m just fearful,” she said. “I’m very fearful of it.”

Lisa Hunt said she grew up in Soldotna and the drug had been prevalent for most of her life. She said she wanted to see the state regulate marijuana in such a way that people could easily abide by the rules.

“I would really like to encourage you, in evaluating the laws, that you consider making laws that people can follow because it seems that (we’re) trying to put blocks in things and make it so that it’s really hard to make sure that people can be law-abiding citizens,” she said. “If the concerns is that people will take marijuana use too far, then maybe consider taking the money from that and making facilities for the people that can’t handle their substances.”

Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson said that he heard a lot of rhetoric about the benefits of marijuana usage and comparisons between in it and substances like alcohol and cigarettes.

“We don’t have a lot of data on marijuana that’s reliable, double-blinded and scientifically done,” he said. “If we do have long term studies, I suspect we’re going to have lung cancers and stuff show up. We don’t know that because we don’t have controlled studies, but I would just like to separate the rhetoric between medical use and personal use.”

Olson said that he had no problem with medical marijuana use but wanted to see it well-regulated.

“In California, you can walk into a storefront and have anything … from a sinus infection to menstrual cramps, anything and get a prescription for medical marijuana and then it’s sold next door,” he said. “That, I would not like to see come to Alaska, but legitimate medical use I would support.”

Chenault joked that the community would likely not see him sampling the newly legalized drug.

“I’m laid back enough as it is,” he said with a grin. “I don’t need any help. I’m almost useless.”

Anderson, a Soldotna-based doctor, also asked the legislators to look into expanding Medicaid.

“I saw two more patients yesterday that need surgeries that can’t get them done and are basically out of a work situation because they’re incapacitated and basically on pain medications because they don’t have any funds to get the needed procedures done,” he said. “This is just no uncommon.”

On food, Linda Swarner, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and Heidi Chay of the Kenai Soil & Water Conservation District told the legislators that Kenai Peninsula organizations needed the money they get from the state to continue to feed area residents.

Swarner said the food bank uses about $7,000 in funds that it gets from the borough through state funds and buys food that it passes out to both individuals and its 70 member agencies that feed people on the Kenai Peninsula.

Chay said she wasn’t sure what needed to be cut from the budget, but wanted to see agriculture continue to thrive.

“I think we’re missing the boat if we cut our tiny division of agriculture and we cut our soil and water conservation districts, which are part of the essential infrastructure what we have across the state that support agriculture,” she said.

Thomas Daly, president of the Alaska Film Group, said he wanted to see the two legislators spike Senate Bill 39 which would eliminate the film incentive in the state.

Daly said Alaska’s film industry was working to come up with alternative ways to use state funding and show the state a return on its investment.

“If we do away with yet another industry, long term it’s going to be bad for the state,” he said.

Olson told Daly that the film industry bill was likely not a high priority for the Senate.

“There’s only 30 days left (in the session),” Olson said.

Reach Rashah McChesney at or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens

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