Pot’s big day approaches, but consumption questions remain

With less than two weeks to go before the first entrepreneurs can apply for an Alaska marijuana license, the Alaska Marijuana Control Board on Thursday approved the forms and documents that await those who seek to grow, test, sell and make products from Alaska’s newest legal crop.

That bit of bureaucratic business was overshadowed, however, as the board continued to seek a balance between Alaska’s version of a marijuana bar and a restriction on public marijuana consumption.

“I think on-site consumption is going to be challenged in court no matter what,” said Loren Jones, a member of the board and a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member, after the meeting.

Late last year, the control board voted 3-2 in favor of allowing marijuana buyers to consume marijuana products at retail stores that apply for special permission. “On-site consumption” is intended to meet the requests of Alaskans who demanded a legal way to consume marijuana if they couldn’t use it at home.

Without a private location to consume marijuana, tourists might not have a legal place to enjoy edibles or smoke pot bought legally. The same could be true of renters whose landlords forbid smoking.

Alaska voters legalized the recreational consumption of marijuana with a 2014 ballot measure, but commercial sale remains illegal until licenses are issued.

Cindy Franklin, executive director of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, told board members that staff were unable to draft regulations for on-site consumption in time for Tuesday’s meeting, but that didn’t keep the board from spending two hours discussing what that draft should look like.

“We are the first in the country doing this,” said board chairman Bruce Schulte. “It’s absolutely crucial that we get this right.”

The state remains on schedule for issuing licenses this summer.

All of the states that have legalized commercial marijuana so far — Washington, Oregon and Colorado — have treated marijuana sales like buying liquor from a liquor store. There’s no equivalent of a bar. Alaska is seeking to change that.

Soldotna police chief Peter Mlynarik, a member of the board, said that while he believes it’s “a stretch” to think on-site consumption isn’t public, he wants to make sure that there are strict limits on serving sizes to ensure intoxicated visitors don’t drive high.

Schulte said he agreed with that idea, and with reference to Amsterdam’s pot cafes, said the notion of a “menu” for on-site consumption might make sense. While Alaska’s marijuana laws allow the purchase of up to one ounce of marijuana at a time, the board seemed to agree that smaller serving sizes would be appropriate for on-site consumption and the one-ounce limit is appropriate for home consumption.

“I think the more conservative we are in the initial regulations, the better that meets the needs of public health and public safety,” said board member Mark Springer of Bethel.

A majority of board members also agreed on several other aspects of the on-site consumption rules:

• Employees will still be forbidden from consuming on-site.

• There will be a prohibition against “happy hour” discounts.

• Dabbing (marijuana wax or concentrate use) will be permitted.

• There will be strict ventilation rules for on-site consumption.

• Local governments can choose to challenge the on-site consumption aspect of a marijuana permit, even if they choose to not challenge the permit itself.

• The area shouldn’t be viewed from the public right-of-way.

• Only products bought on site can be consumed on site.

The board took no official action on the on-site consumption notion; the suggestions were forwarded to Franklin and board staff, who will create a draft set of regulations in the coming months.

Though the state is preparing to begin accepting applications starting Feb. 24, the on-site consumption rules are limited to retail stores, whose licenses are expected in the fall. After Feb. 24, Franklin said priority will be given to growers and testing facilities.

Even then, it will take months to issue the first licenses.

According to the state’s timeline, its seed-to-sale marijuana tracking system will not be up and running until the end of May; the first marijuana cultivation and testing licenses are expected in the second week of June.

Franklin said prospective businesses need not rush to apply. Unlike other states that have legalized commercial marijuana, Alaska has no limit on the number of licenses, and there is no “application window” for any license.

Despite this, Franklin said her office has received a surge of interest and questions that far outweighs the available staff. “People are waiting for the starter’s pistol,” she said.

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