The recently elected chairman of Marijuana Control Board, Peter Mlynarik, is a registered signature gatherer for a Kenai Peninsula Borough petition that would put a commercial cannabis prohibition ballot initiative onto the borough’s 2016 ballot.
Ballot Measure 2, which legalized commercial cannabis statewide in 2014, allows for local governments to submit their own controls on cannabis, including ballot initiatives that ban commercial activity. Several localities including the Mat-Su Borough, Wasilla and Palmer have already opted out. The borough ban, like that of the Mat-Su borough, would only apply to unincorporated areas. Those that already have their own laws, like Kenai, would still have legal commercial cannabis.
Mlynarik and the board’s legal counsel said Mlynarik’s involvement with the borough initiative is simply a private exercise of citizenship, while others think it crosses a line.
Mlynarik, who serves as the Soldotna Chief of Police, where commercial cannabis is banned, said he doesn’t feel his involvement as a signature gatherer should color his board chairmanship any differently than in the past. His actions as a private citizen, he said, should be viewed in context.
“I think the main thing is to look on my roll and how I voted,” said Mlynarik. “I’m not always the most conservative vote on the board. All the licenses went through. I’m not trying to hold anything up.”
Despite his chairmanship, he said, he still has personal concerns about young people’s cannabis usage in his home borough.
“My particular concern about the youth,” he said. “That’s always in the back of my mind. As a borough citizen, it was my concern that the people at least have a right to vote on it.”
Mlynarik was elected as chair during the board’s June 9 meeting, replacing Bruce Schulte, one of two designated cannabis industry representatives on the board, sparking some industry fear that the board’s policies and regulations could change.
The record supports Mlynarik’s claim that he has supported license issuance since the board began approving licenses on June 9, which another board member said is the most important part of the situation.
The fact that Mlynarik gathers signatures for a citizen’s initiative “don’t mean (expletive),” according to Mark Springer, a board member.
“It’s a local government issue, said Springer. “He can do whatever he wants. He has voted to approve every license that’s been approved. He hasn’t expressed a deep prejudice against the licensing process. He’s not the sponsor of the petition. At the higher level, we’re issuing licenses. We’ve had Kenai (Peninsula Borough) applications. He voted yes on them too.”
Other board members from the industry don’t like the development, saying a member should respect the duty of the board to encourage, not prohibit, the industry.
“Although it’s legal to do this, it seems somewhat poor spirited to be in the position of highest authority on the board and also be attempting to end the industry for significant portions of the state,” said Brandon Emmett, an industry seat on the board. “It’s disheartening. I was very surprised.”
Mlynarik consulted Harriet Milks, the board’s legal counsel, before gathering signatures.
Milks said board members are within their rights to engage in local politics that involve the subject of their respective boards, and that she doesn’t think there is any legal issue with Mlynarik’s doing so.
“I think it’s perfectly fine,” said Milks. “We are a representative democracy. We don’t expect our board members to check their opinions at the door when they enter. Participating in the election process is something we’re all for.”
Cases of conflict of interest, Milks explained, are outlined in the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act. She said in the case of the Marijuana Control Board, behavior away from the board is irrelevant unless the board member has something to personally gain from an issue on which the board is taking action.
“That act gets down to undue influence as a public official,” said Milks. “If we wanted people to have completely blank minds, we wouldn’t have people, we’d have a computer. We don’t want people to have their votes be bought or to have a sway in influence.”
Milks and Mlynarik both compare signature gathering for the initiative to industry members Schulte and Emmett, saying his involvement with the petition shouldn’t be any more concern than their pro-industry actions are as they develop their own respective cannabis businesses.
“It’s just as appropriate to do that as it is for a member of industry to do industry related things when they’re away from the board,” Mlynarik said. “And they stand to benefit. There is a monetary gain there. For me, there isn’t one. I’m not making any money from this.”
Emmett does make a distinction, saying board members’ personal actions should not undermine the mission.
“I think the MCB was formed to implement a regulated industry,” he said. “The overall perception is that marijuana is legal, and we need to implement it responsibly. Even though there are some diverse viewpoints, I feel that when he took the job as a regulator for the industry, it’s responsible implementation he should have in mind.”
DJ Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.