The new chairman of the state board tasked with regulating Alaska's fledgling marijuana industry took an active role in a campaign asking voters whether to ban commercial cannabis on the Kenai Peninsula, which he says — and state attorneys agree — is within his rights as a citizen.
Peter Mlynarik gathered signatures this summer for the petition to put the question of a ban on the ballot. The signatures were submitted Tuesday afternoon to the Kenai borough clerk's office.
He was one of 30 petition-booklet holders who collected signatures, according to Katie Ring, borough clerk secretary. Borough Assembly member Stan Welles was also listed as a petition-book holder.
Mlynarik said Monday that his efforts on the ballot measure don't affect how he regulates the industry. As a state board member, "I don't think I abdicate my right as a citizen," he said.
Assistant attorney general Harriet Milks agreed.
"There's nothing improper about a board member on any board participating in the ballot process in this way," Milks said.
Potential marijuana business owners on the Kenai are, not surprisingly, upset.
"To participate on a regulatory board and simultaneously seek to undermine that very industry in his free time seems to me as a definite conflict of interest … I feel that Mlynarik should step down as chair," wrote Dollynda Phelps of Peace Frog Botanicals, which has received both state and borough approval to begin cannabis cultivation.
Mlynarik, who was elected as chairman of the Marijuana Control Board in June, fills the public safety seat of the five-member board, alongside a public health seat, two marijuana industry seats and a rural seat. Mlynarik was appointed to the board by Gov. Bill Walker in July 2015.
Recent meetings of the board have focused on approving licenses, which have so far all been unanimously approved, save licenses that have been tabled pending possible bans from local governments.
Milks noted that two board members, Brandon Emmett and former chair Bruce Schulte, have disclosed that they are members of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, and "so far nobody has thought that there's a problem," she said.
Conflict of interest concerns only arise in Alaska's Executive Branch Ethics Act when there's a significant financial interest, Milks said.
"The reason it's so narrow is because, again, we want board members with fully developed, thinking minds," she said.
"There's nothing about that that seems to me to suggest that Mr. Mlynarik is receiving any kind of improper influence from anybody," Milks said.
‘The right to vote yes or no’
Alaska's 2014 initiative that legalized commercial marijuana included a provision allowing local governments to opt out of the industry.
The petition that circulated on the Kenai Peninsula would ask voters whether or not to ban commercial cannabis in the borough. All four license types — cultivation, manufacturing, retail and testing facilities — would not be allowed to operate if a ban is adopted by voters.
The cities of Kenai, Seward and Homer wouldn't be affected. Soldotna has already placed a two-year moratorium on the industry.
About 58,000 people live in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. If the petition sponsors gathered enough signatures, it will land on the Oct. 4 ballot.
"The petition wasn't to ban it," Mlynarik said. "It just gives the people of the borough the right to vote yes or no."
City councils and borough assemblies can enact a ban, like in Wasilla, or residents can file a petition that lets voters decide. So far, Palmer is the only place where voters have chosen to ban the industry. Voters in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough will address the question at the polls in October.
Mlynarik declined to say how he voted in the 2014 election that legalized marijuana, but said that "obviously not everybody on the board voted for the initiative."
"If you had everybody on the board that was pro-industry I don't think you'd have a very balanced board," Mlynarik said.
Emmett disagreed, saying board members should "not be of the mindset that the industry should end, should not exist."
"I don't think Mr. Mlynarik is doing anything wrong, but it is disappointing," Emmett said.
Regardless, a personal position isn't a conflict, Milks said. "He can be against it and still regulate it," she said.
Milks counsels a wide variety of boards, she said, and has never been approached regarding a similar situation. A person might not necessarily disclose elections activity, she said.
"We expect that public officers can keep their own personal opinions separate and apart," Milks said.
"We don't expect them to be automatons," she said.