Marijuana Task Force passes recommendations

Aspiring marijuana businesses in the Kenai Peninsula Borough may face only a few additional requirements on top of the state’s regulations.

After many months of deliberation, many amendments and dozens of public comments, the borough’s Marijuana Task Force arrived at a set of recommendations for the borough assembly at its Wednesday meeting.

The requirements the task force members changed were to increase the setback for marijuana establishments from schools, increase the number of hours retail stores must be closed for business and specify that the only prohibited odor outside marijuana establishments is that of marijuana itself.

The statewide setback requirement is 500 feet from schools, recreational or youth facilities licensed or authorized by the state or local government, building where religious ceremonies regularly take place or correctional facility. If the borough assembly passes the task force’s recommendations, marijuana establishments will have to be at least 1,000 feet from schools, but only schools. The reason for the change was because the task force recommended that the borough comply with the federal drug-free zone around schools, which is 1,000 feet.

Task force member Ron Long suggested complying with the drug-free zones so the marijuana businesses in the borough would be less impacted if the federal government ever does decide to enforce that zone.

Long drafted the ordinance that the task force unanimously passed Wednesday night, but several task members added amendments and all members weighed in. The borough will have its own permitting process, including relevant fees, which will be issued by the borough Planning Director.

The Planning Commission will likely be the regulatory body for marijuana businesses on the peninsula if the borough assembly chooses to pass an ordinance introduced at its Tuesday meeting.

The debate over the setback requirements was the most heated of the evening. The state’s requirements leave the distance at 500 feet across the board, but previous discussions had raised the idea of raising the requirement to 1,000 feet for all of the mentioned facilities.

Task force chairman Leif Abel brought forward the amendment that would make the 1,000-foot setback only for schools. Task force member Peter Mlynarik, who also served on the state Marijuana Control Board during the decision for the statewide regulations, argued for the inclusion of recreational or youth facilities.

Under the state’s definition, recreational or youth facilities — which have to be licensed or authorized by the local government or state to qualify, such as the North Peninsula Recreation Center in Nikiski — include buildings, structures, athletic playing fields or playgrounds created by a municipality or state to provide athletic, recreational or leisure activities for minors.

“That’s important — the protection of our youth is important when it comes to these (businesses),” Mlynarik said. “I realize what the state has and I realize that there is a drug-free zone that the federal government has, but none of this is legal with the federal government. … I think it’s kind of strange to say that we want to be on par with the federal government, because we’re not.”

Multiple task force members invoked the Cole Memorandum, a memo written by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole about marijuana enforcement. Among the general guidelines for states making marijuana policies was the directive to prevent the distribution of marijuana to minors. The main reason for the setbacks was compliance with the Cole memorandum — protecting children, according to several task force members.

Other members disagreed. Task force member Dave Nunley said the actual distance from schools has little effect on whether children have access to marijuana, as younger children are under constant supervision while outside and high school students have to have permission to leave campus during lunch.

“Yes, the legal boundary of the school is the far fence, but does anybody go there, is there any chance of a child coming in danger in that area?” Nunley said. “The point is … I would think there would be some supervision in that area, especially with this new law.”

In the end, the task force seemed to be satisfied with the final product, as there were no objections to unanimous approval on the recommendations. The plan is to introduce the recommendations as an ordinance at the upcoming assembly meeting in February.

The task force also agreed to support the passage of the local option zone code rewrite as a concept. Task force member Blaine Gilman suggested the task force support the ordinance as a method of offering neighborhoods control of what businesses can be established there.

“It’s the only mechanism that the neighbors outside the cities have to be able to say, ‘We don’t want something… in our neighborhood,’” Gilman said. “From my perspective, this is an essential component of this ordinance that we just passed unanimously this evening.”

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

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