Disagreements remain after on-site cannabis consumption approved
Though Alaska’s cannabis business owners have received the green light for on-site consumption endorsements, there’s still division on the Marijuana Control Board and in the public on the issue.
The board members passed regulations for on-site consumption at the Dec. 20 meeting on a 3-2 vote. Industry representatives Brandon Emmett and Nick Miller and public safety representative Jeff Ankerfelt, the Sitka Chief of Police, voted in favor, while public health representative Loren Jones and rural public member Mark Springer voted against.
It was a flip across the table for Jones, who helped draft the language of the regulations the board was considering. Last April, when the board first considered regulatory language, Jones told the Journal that he felt the regulation language covered public safety and health concerns well and included various voices in the process.
During the meeting, he reversed and said he did not think the regulations went far enough and that to approve on-site consumption now would be a “terrible, terrible mistake for us to make moving forward on this.”
“I worked on this with Mr. Emmett, and I was clear to him and clear to everybody else that if this were to pass, I wanted to have something that was enforceable and workable,” he said. “I think we went a long way … but I don’t think we’ve gone far enough.”
Atop concerns about the definition of “public space,” Jones said he didn’t think the regulations as written would sufficiently protect people from the effects of secondhand smoke. Earlier in the meeting, he also raised concerns about the ability of citizens in unincorporated areas to protest on-site endorsements from being granted, as they do not have a local government to formally protest or opt out.
Like commercial cannabis operations, local governments of cities or boroughs are allowed to opt out of allowing on-site consumption within their boundaries.
Though much of the support came from the tourist industry, with business owners seeking a place for tourists to legally smoke cannabis, Jones said there were mixed feelings in Juneau about encouraging cannabis tourism.
“We’re expecting 1.3 million tourists come off the cruise ships (in Juneau) next year,” he said. “About 90 percent of the tourists who come to Alaska come through Juneau. I don’t know that Juneau or the state of Alaska wants to be known as a cannabis tourist destination. Most of the people come up to us wanting the clean air, clean water. They want to do the wilderness … In my community, we have a very strong indoor air ordinance that we’re going to maintain.”
Springer agreed with Jones, saying he gave weight to the comments of public health officials, joining Jones in voting against.
While many hailed the vote as a victory for Alaska’s cannabis industry, which would be the first state to develop retail on-site consumption, there was broad opposition from public health professionals and from the public.
Within the board, Miller and Emmett supported clarifying rules for retailers, who under the approved rules would not be able to sell more than a certain amount of marijuana to an individual per day. In a large retail setting, with multiple employees working, that will be difficult to track, he said.
“We’re not allowed to keep customer data,” he said. “How do I know if someone came in this morning and came in at 3? I understand that that is not the intent … but is it still a violation? There’s just no way for the retailer to understand it at this time.”
The board voted down Miller’s proposed amendment to remove the daily limit clause 3-2, with Emmett and Miller supporting it. Other members cited concerns that removing the language would allow people to buy too much in a single day.
Under the current requirements, several of the areas that requested it — notably, downtown Juneau — most likely won’t see on-site consumption areas soon. The regulations the board passed require a retail store to be freestanding to apply for an endorsement, meaning there are no other establishments in the building, and have proper ventilation systems for the smoke.
That likely won’t apply to anywhere in downtown Juneau, which is densely developed, Jones said. Springer agreed, saying there will likely be a small number of retailers who meet the requirements.
“I think it will be a boon to a relatively small number of people who developed their original facilities with this in mind,” Springer said. “There are a lot of retailers that this is going to do nothing for. It’s not an across-the-board benefit.”
The American Lung Association’s Alaska chapter, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Health and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network wrote letters opposing the approval of on-site consumption, all citing concerns about the impact of secondhand smoke particularly and the recently passed smoke-free workplace law, which requires all smoking activity to occur outside of places of employment.
“Secondhand smoke from combusted marijuana contains fine particulate matter that can be breathed deeply into the lungs, which can cause lung irritation, asthma attacks, and makes users more vulnerable to respiratory infections,” the American Lung Association’s letter states. “Exposure to fine particulate matter can exacerbate health problems, especially for people with respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis, or COPD. Secondhand smoke from marijuana has many of the same chemicals as smoke from tobacco, including those linked to lung cancer.”
Advocates wrote that the public health studies cited are not reputable about the carcinogenic effects of marijuana smoke and that blocking on-site. Consumption areas just push smokers into their own homes, where they expose their families and roommates.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].