After lengthy back and forth, Anchorage Assembly sends on-site marijuana smoking to the voters

After more than a year of deliberation on allowing on-site marijuana consumption in Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage Assembly decided last week to send the issue to the voters.

The Anchorage Assembly already approved on-site consumption of marijuana edibles earlier this year but stopped short on allowing people to smoke marijuana at approved retail shops. Ultimately, the Assembly decided to send the issue to the voters.

On a 7-4 vote, the Anchorage Assembly approved a proposition that will ask voters whether people should be allowed to smoke up to one gram of marijuana at a licensed retail store. The regulations would require that the smoking space been separately ventilated and that employees cannot be forced to enter the space except in cases of emergency.

The debate at last Tuesday’s Assembly meeting revolved around two main issues: The potential health risks of second-hand marijuana smoke and whether the assembly should be punting such an issue to the voters at all.

The Assembly heard testimony that was generally opposed to the effort from people who were concerned about the health risks of second-hand smoke. They said the measure flew in the face of Anchorage’s long-standing ban on smoking at workplaces.

“Second-hand smoke is a public safety and health issue,” said testifier Linda Chase. “I’m a mother and a grandmother, and I don’t want my family to have to deal with second-hand smoke. … Right now, we don’t know the whole ramifications of this.”

Chase and other testifiers said creating a carve-out for marijuana businesses was unfair.

But the health concerns did little to register during the Anchorage Assembly debate, where some members said they felt that the health concerns were adequately addressed in the proposition.

Instead, many members questioned whether they should be putting the issue to voters at all instead of acting on it themselves. The municipal laws don’t require such a change to go to the voters and the assembly could have implemented the rules on their own.

Assemblyman Fred Dyson voted against the measure, arguing that the Assembly has it within its rights to pass the laws on its own.

“I can’t find in the federalist papers any indication at all that we should go out to the public with a whetted finger to find out which way the wind is blowing,” he said, warning against “dancing to the populist tune.” “I’m not at all saying this movement to have on-site smoking is a populist thing, I think there’s some good reasons to do it, but I don’t think we should be asking the public what they think.”

Assemblyman Christopher Constant, who voted in favor of the proposition, agreed that he would rather just vote on the regulations but that the proposition was what was in front of the assembly.

“I would personally think that the right thing to do is to just vote and make this the code or not,” he said. “But we have this question before us tonight and I intend to vote yes.”

Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar said he had initially been supportive of just voting the regulations but said he was convinced by supporters of the smoke-free workplace laws “that we should not just impose it but we should send it to the voters.” He said voters have already spoken about banning indoor smoking, but that was specifically about tobacco when marijuana was still illegal. He said the voters ought to have a voice in updating the law under the new reality.

“In this unique set of circumstances where we’ve already had a vote of the people I promised at the time we were doing the on-site consumption debate that I would not impose this and send it to the vote of the people,” he said.

Still, some other Assemblymembers had concerns moving the proposition forward. Assembly Chair Felix Rivera and Assemblyman Kameron Perez-Verdia both said they were concerned that they’d be coming back with fixes to the law if the proposition is passed.

“I think we’re going to be here in April and we’re going to be hashing out the problems,” he said.

The final vote on the ordinance was 7-4. Assemblymembers John Weddleton, Meg Zaletel, Forrest Dunbar, Felix Rivera, Pete Petersen, Christopher Constant, Austin Quinn-Davidson voted in favor of the measure. Assemblymembers Crystal Kennedy, Suzanne LaFrance, Kameron Perez-Verdia, Fred Dyson voted against it.

The election is April 7, 2020.

Why it matters

While other municipalities have already been giving on-site consumption the OK, Anchorage has been slow to get on board with approving it locally. It’s largely a matter of dealing with unknowns ranging from health and safety of on-site consumption to a more practical issue of whether there’s actually the demand for such stores.

The state regulations for on-site marijuana consumption could be expensive for stores to comply with, especially when the consumption limits put a cap on how much retail stores can make off any transaction. To that end, the applications for on-site consumption have been slow going for the state but many in the industry hope it could be potentially lucrative especially for tourists.

With a looming campaign over the issue, the proposition ought to serve as a test for whether the marijuana industry is serious in investing significant resources in what has yet to be an unproven market.


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