Alaska marijuana regulators reject plan to allow in-store consumption

 Photo taken at the Rainforest Farms cultivation facility, near Lemon Creek, in Juneau.
Photo taken at the Rainforest Farms cultivation facility, near Lemon Creek, in Juneau. (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 2, 2017 at 2:07 PM AKST
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Alaska was set to become the first state to allow cannabis use in stores, but on Thursday a regulatory board rejected the plan with a 3-2 vote in the state's capital city.

The rejected proposal would not have actually allowed licensed dispensaries to allow smoking or consumption of edible marijuana on-site but instead would have allowed local governments to decide for themselves if that should happen.Supporters of the Marijuana Control Board's decision say it was necessary to protect the health of workers who would otherwise be exposed to smoke for several hours a day.

Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik represents the public safety community on the board and also acts as chair. He opposed on-site consumption in part because of health concerns but also because the ballot measure that approved commercial sale of marijuana in 2014 explicitly bans public consumption.

On the other hand, marijuana business owners and the two dissenting board members believe the lack of places to legally consume marijuana will be problematic -- especially when summer tourism season arrives.

That is the concern expressed by James Barrett, who along with his brother, Giono, founded the lone retail dispensary currently operating in Juneau. James said the problem is especially pronounced in Southeast Alaska, home to the Inside Passage, which attracts more than 1 million tourists annually.

With the board's decision, cruise ship tourists -- typically visiting places like Juneau for a day or two at most -- will be legally allowed to buy marijuana for recreational use. However, they will have nowhere to legally use the substance.

Public use is banned under state law. Federal rules prohibit shipping cannabis by mail, and the feds also do not allow taking the substance back onto cruise ships that travel the Inside Passage as they pass through federal waters. Flying on a commercial flight with marijuana is also illegal federally.

"We're going to be selling products to people who have no place to consume it," said James, whose Rainforest Farms runs a cultivation facility in Lemon Creek as well as a Downtown store.

Giono also pushed back against the notion that being exposed to marijuana smoke is necessarily unhealthy. He said that if regulators and businesses can find a way to keep auto mechanics, miners, and others who work in environments with dangerous fumes, then officials could establish requirements to keep marijuana workers safe.

"The effort was to try to be proactive," Giono said. "I guess now we'll have to be reactive."

Mark Springer, a control board member from Bethel who represents rural interests, said there is another problem beyond health concerns with becoming the first state to allow on-site marijuana consumption: President Donald Trump's administration.

"We have a new attorney general who's made it quite clear that he is more friendly with the (Ku Klux Klan) than he is with marijuana," Springer said during the board hearing, referring to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) who has been tapped to lead the Department of Justice. "He thought the KKK were good guys until he found out they smoked pot."

An attendee of the meeting at the State Office Building, who supports on-site consumption, interjected that Sessions made the statement "jokingly."

Nonetheless, Springer explained that his opposition to moving forward with regulations allowing on-site consumption was based in part on the idea that Trump's administration may crack down on states that have legalized cannabis.