In response to November’s vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Alaska, a group of Kenai Peninsula residents have formed a coalition and will hold a town hall meeting Tuesday to hear what community members have to say on the issue.
Soldotna trial lawyer Eric Derleth started the Kenai Community Coalition on Cannabis and will host the meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai. Derleth, who has been a cannabis advocate since he started writing papers in favor of legalization in 1984 at the age of 14, said he wants to hear from the citizens who voted against legalization and begin a dialogue to understand what concerns people have about how an underground market adjusts to a legitimate enterprise.
“We share the same goals from keeping the community, workplace and roads safe,” he said. “We agree with all that. There is more than one way to skin a cat.”
Derleth drafted an agenda for the meeting that would include a question and answer segment but he said the meeting structure is up to the audience. Local politicians have been invited. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has committed to attend the meeting as have assembly members Blaine Gilman of Kenai and Wayne Ogle of Nikiski. Kenai Mayor Pat Porter said she will be out of town but a city representative will attend the meeting.
Porter said the Kenai City Council will eventually host a town hall meeting in the spring when more regulation options have been discussed. Porter said the city will have the option to figure out where retail dispensaries could be zoned in the city, depending on what the community wants.
“We will look to make the best arrangements for our town,” she said. “Zoning will impact how these stores fit in our city.”
Derleth said the timing of the meeting is to get the conversation started and get various viewpoints together to find solutions before municipalities act to ban marijuana.
“Our goal is to find out who is against us and to slow down people who want to make it illegal before regulations are in place,” Derleth said. “When people say we can’t control it without banning it they are being disingenuous.”
The passage of Ballot Measure 2 allows the state to tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana. Starting on Feb. 24, 2015 possession of up to one ounce of marijuana would be legal for those 21 years old and older.
“We can actually bring marijuana to meetings,” he said. “I can’t wait to see people’s reaction. Just try to hand it to them and let them look at it, they treat it like it’s plutonium. … It comes down to individual liberties and letting people be responsible.”
The initiative states marijuana would be regulated and taxed like alcohol. The state alcohol board, which has been tasked to develop regulations for the cannabis industry, has nine months to develop framework to control the market. The first retail dispensaries are still one year away from opening, Derleth said.
Election results from the Kenai Peninsula show the borough was split on the issue. Voters on the central peninsula opposed the measure, while south and eastern peninsula voters favored legalization.
While marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, several recent decisions have shifted the political landscape. Last week the Department of Justice announced they would not stop Native American tribes from growing marijuana on tribal lands and would not enforce federal pot laws on tribes. Derleth said allowing marijuana on tribal lands is a game-changer.
“When the government sees how much money it can bring in it will change everything,” he said. “We have reached a tipping point.”
Derleth said the war on drugs has made many productive members of society hide in the shadows because they use marijuana. People that have been arrested and convicted have been cast out of society. He would like to help move people into the legitimate business and be productive members of society.
“We lose a lot of good people by throwing them away,” he said. “What happened to redemption? We are all felons, just not all convicted felons.”
At the meeting Derleth plans to address a self-imposed code of ethics for Alaska Cannabis Businesses that he would like to see separate itself from the negative advertising and marketing in the alcohol industry.
With the revenue potential that taxed marijuana sales could bring the state, Derleth said a lot of good can come in the form of free substance abuse classes and job training to get more people back into the workforce.
Derleth said he expects the coalition meeting will be the first of several before the regulations are developed. In the meantime he welcomes anyone interested to come express their concerns so the best solutions can come forward. He said while it is early in the game, starting the discussions with members of the community would help elected officials make the best decisions for everyone.
“People who are lawmakers love to make laws,” Derleth said. “If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. … We have nearly 200 liquor licenses on the Kenai Peninsula. Are you telling me we can’t have one cannabis store?”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.