With legal possession of recreational marijuana only four weeks away, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously approved an ordinance making it illegal to consume it in a public place.
The ordinance Tuesday established rules on consuming the substance in a public place, a provision outlined in Ballot Measure 2 which made such an act strictly illegal and subject to fines.
The ordinance -- a blend of the city's alcohol and tobacco prohibitions -- made clear the definition of a public place and stipulated the fines associated with violating the law. Those caught consuming marijuana in public will face a fine of $100 under the ordinance, the same fee outlined in Ballot Measure 2. Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew noted that the fee was a civil, not criminal citation, similar to a traffic ticket.
Personal use provisions of the initiative go into effect Feb. 24. On that day it will be legal to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and six plants, three of which can be mature. Sales will still be prohibited until the state sets up a permitting system through the regulation, a nine-month process that begins when the initiative goes in to effect.
Mew testified to the Assembly that it was important to get the law on the books before the ballot measure goes in to effect and before the state completes its own rules.
"Trying to cure it down the road will be much worse unless we set the standard from the beginning," he said. "We don't want to educate (the) public that we can't enforce it by our inaction and try to get it back six months from now."
Despite the clear provisions in the initiative, the measure drew testimony mostly in opposition. Many had concerns over what constituted a public place and whether that would effect consumption in "cannabis cafes" or other businesses hoping to sell marijuana.
Joanne Henning, representing the Alaska Cannabis Association, had concerns over where people would go to use the substance, specifically tourists. If there cannot be cannabis cafes, similar to bars, she wondered where people would go to use it?
"We voted to control it like alcohol; we want a safe place to consume it like alcohol," she testified.
But under the proposed ordinance, permitted facilities could allow patrons to consume marijuana.
Confusion stemmed from groups who voiced concerns that the issue of "public" was too broad. Bruce Schulte, spokesman for the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, noted concerns over a specific section of the city's alcohol laws allowing permitted facilities to be exempt from the public consumption prohibition.
When asked during Assembly debate why that portion was left out, Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler said it was intentionally left out because his office felt the issue was covered in another section of the ordinance. He said his office did not think having it reiterated was "good drafting."
Assemblyman Patrick Flynn suggested adding the section back in to parallel the alcohol laws in an effort to not add any additional confusion. He said not having it could lead to inconsistencies from the courts.
The Assembly approved the amendment, though Wheeler maintained his position.
"It's redundant and unnecessary, but legally speaking it does no good or no harm," Wheeler said.
After its passage, Schulte admitted the issue of public consumption was a tough one, but that he was pleased with the Assembly's outcome and pleased they had lined up the marijuana provisions with alcohol.
"It's an excess of caution," he said. "But let's have parity."
The ordinance is the second to come through the Anchorage Assembly since Ballot Measure 2 passed in November. Just weeks after the measure passed, Assemblywoman Amy Demboski introduced an ordinance that would have banned commercial marijuana sales in Anchorage, another provision allowed under the initiative. After four hours of testimony largely against the measure, the ordinance was voted down 9-2.