Because of local smoking bans, Anchorage cannabis customers could soon be allowed to eat, but not smoke or inhale, marijuana products within designated areas in retail shops through a new ordinance proposed by city officials.
The proposal, which is being introduced to the Anchorage Assembly next week, follows the state of Alaska’s move to regulate on-site cannabis use in retail marijuana shops. Since April 11, freestanding businesses have been able to apply for endorsements to build separate areas for customers to consume cannabis products. Cannabis cafes, lounges and social areas have already emerged in cities in the Lower 48.
In Alaska, local governments can adopt and add restrictions to the state rules or bar on-site use entirely.
Anchorage runs its own licensing system for commercial marijuana. With the summer tourist season approaching, the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz wanted some way of allowing cannabis to be consumed on the premises of retail stores, said Chris Schutte, the city’s director of economic and community development. He said the city lacks places where people can legally consume marijuana, particularly visitors to the city.
But Anchorage’s indoor smoking and workplace smoking bans also apply to marijuana smoke, according to Schutte. That leaves only edibles, he said.
Such restrictions don’t apply in other places. The city of Fairbanks recently adopted the state rules with no changes, allowing on-site smoking in shops as well as the consumption of edibles. In Fairbanks, local smoking bans are specific to tobacco products, said Teal Soden, communications director for the city.
The proposed Anchorage ordinance from the Berkowitz administration includes a framework for what would be required of businesses, if the city Assembly later changed the law to allow for smoking or inhalation in stores. The proposed rules mirror state regulations, which include requirements for ventilation systems and a smoke-free room where employees can observe customers. People would also not be allowed to bring marijuana from elsewhere into a store’s consumption area.
City officials wanted to put that framework on the books so businesses could plan ahead, Schutte said.
At the same time, Schutte said he expected a debate in the coming weeks about whether the Assembly should change the smoking law at all.
“The biggest concerns and issues are around whether this is pushing too hard against the smoking ban,” Schutte said.
Assemblyman Christopher Constant, who represents downtown, said he was working on an ordinance addressing the smoking issue. He said he expected it to move slowly this summer because of the concerns.
Anti-smoking groups have been lobbying against any change. The American Lung Association of Alaska has been attending meetings and closely tracking Anchorage’s efforts to regulate in-store cannabis consumption.
Anchorage has had a comprehensive smoke-free law since 2007, said Marge Stoneking, the organization’s executive director. She said the proposed ordinance for edibles would take very little to shift over to on-site smoking and vaping.
A ventilation system or separate room doesn’t remove harmful particulates from the air, Stoneking said.
“Smoke is smoke,” Stoneking said.
Industry advocates, meanwhile, say that the indoor spaces would create a more controlled environment for behavior that is already happening.
Customers should have a place to smoke and consume cannabis that isn’t inside a home with kids, on the street or in a public park, said Jana Weltzin, an Anchorage attorney who specializes in marijuana land use and zoning law.
“Let’s get this product, and consumption of this product, where it belongs: in an adult establishment,” Weltzin said.
The Assembly is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the current on-site consumption ordinance, which the restriction to edibles, at its May 21 meeting.
If the measure passes, it would take retail stores some time to adjust, Weltzin said. Some business owners who were anticipating the change could finish the paperwork and retrofits in time to open a venue by early July, Weltzin said.
That process, however, is far less involved than adapting a business for in-store smoking and inhalation, Weltzin said. She said businesses aren’t likely to make those investments until the Assembly decides what to do.