In a surprise move, Alaska’s marijuana control board has abandoned plans for cafe-style regulations that would have allowed marijuana to be consumed in some retail stores. Had the regulations been approved, they would have been the first of their kind in the United States.
The 3-2 vote to drop the regulation project follows more than 16 months of research, debate and public testimony that culminated Thursday in a conference room of the State Office Building in Juneau.
“I’m stunned,” said Lacy Wilcox, president of the Southeast chapter of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association.
The board had been scheduled to vote Thursday to create an “on-site consumption” addendum to retail marijuana licenses, but as the board prepared to take up the subject, board members were informed that there were flaws in the public notice before Thursday’s meeting.
Interim Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office director Sara Chambers said state workers made errors serious enough that the board could not approve the regulations without another 30 days of public notice.
Rather than delay a decision, board member Loren Jones of Juneau suggested killing the idea altogether.
Jones’ proposal had the support of board chairman Peter Mlynarik of Soldotna. It was opposed by Brandon Emmett of Fairbanks and Nicholas Miller of Anchorage.
The swing vote was Mark Springer of Bethel, who had supported the idea during its development, but on Thursday, he changed his mind.
Ahead of his vote, he cited fears about what the new U.S. Attorney General might think. President Donald Trump has nominated longtime marijuana legalization opponent Jeff Sessions for the job.
“It will draw a big spotlight on us,” Springer said of the cafe-style regulations. “We don’t want to be waving a red flag in front of federal law enforcement, at least not now.”
Sessions, as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, famously said in the 1980s that he used to think the KKK “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.”
Speaking Thursday, Springer said he thinks it might be better for a state like Maine to take the lead on the topic.
“If we want to protect this industry … then maybe we should take a deep breath on this and think about it a little bit more,” he said.
After the vote, Springer suggested that industry advocates should petition the Legislature to address the topic and fix a problem that’s lasted for two and a half years.
Alaska voters legalized recreational marijuana consumption with a 2014 ballot measure, but the legalization vote didn’t answer a critical question: Where can tourists use marijuana?
The measure declared that using marijuana “in public” remained illegal. The state subsequently adopted a definition of “in public” that includes most outdoor spaces, including streets, sidewalks, trails and parks. Federal law prohibits the use of marijuana on federal land.
In November 2015, the marijuana control board adopted a regulation that defines “in public” to exempt retail stores that obtain an “on-site consumption license endorsement.” That endorsement would let the store set aside a space for buyers to use marijuana.
“It was driven by people from Southeast, from Juneau, from Ketchikan,” Springer said.
Those cities see more than half of Alaska’s annual tourist traffic, delivered primarily by cruise ship.
“We just don’t want a bad image for the industry if it smells like cannabis downtown,” he said, and having a lounge space would reduce the spread of odor.
Others have spent thousands of dollars preparing to apply for a lounge license endorsement, and some stormed out of the meeting angrily after the vote.
Wilcox had been planning to apply for endorsement but said she wasn’t as financially exposed. She said tourists aren’t the only ones affected by Thursday’s decision.
“I don’t go to bars and drink, but it wouldn’t be so bad to go to a place and be with like-minded individuals,” she said.
She said cafe-style rules would have met the need for social clubs and provided a bar-like equivalent for marijuana.
She added that the board’s action effectively forces people to use marijuana illegally and Springer’s suggestion about marijuana edibles is wrong.
“I feel like he was just advocating for an illegal act on the sidewalk,” she said. “That’s criminalizing something we made legal, and that’s very unfortunate.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 419-7732.