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Anchorage ordinance defining public marijuana consumption faces backlash

An Anchorage Assembly ordinance that would ban consumption of marijuana in public places is under fire from pro-pot groups.

The Alaska Cannabis Institute and Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation oppose the proposal, arguing that its definition of a public place is overreaching. The groups argue that by making a broad definition of "public," the ordinance makes it difficult for marijuana users and business owners to legally consume and sell it.

Cory Wray, director of the Alaska Cannabis Institute, said the ordinance would effectively stop "cannabis cafes" or similar businesses allowing open marijuana consumption.

"I just hope that in the spirit in which (the Assembly) regulates it, that they think of the folks who consume cannabis and that they try to make it as easy as possible for those folks to follow laws," Wray said.

Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler said the ordinance is a "blend" of the city's statutes on public alcohol consumption and smoke-free workplaces. He said it would be up to the Assembly to limit or expand that definition of "public" or make other modifications to the proposed law.

Wheeler, whose office drafted the ordinance, said he welcomed the public testimony, which is scheduled for Jan. 27.

"Hopefully they'll come out and testify," Wheeler said. "This is a starting point for the conversation."

The ordinance defines public as "a place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access" including streets, sidewalks, parking areas, convention centers, sports arenas, places of business or amusement, shopping centers, parks and playgrounds, among others.

Under Ballot Measure 2, public consumption of marijuana is prohibited, with individuals fined up to $100 for violations. The ordinance also updates the city's fine schedule for marijuana to match this, with violations set at $100, the same fine as for public consumption of alcohol.

Bruce Schulte, spokesman for the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, said the ordinance mirrors Anchorage's laws on public consumption of alcohol almost exactly, with the exception of what the coalition considers a crucial detail. Under Anchorage's alcohol laws, a subsection allows exemption for public consumption in places where it is "authorized by a state permit or license, or authorized by a municipal permit or lease."

Schulte said that section is missing from the marijuana ordinance. He said the coalition agrees that marijuana should be banned from most public places, but not in a way that hampers potential licensed businesses.

"The definition of public really only makes sense in the presence of that exemption," Schulte said. "Without that exemption the definition is overly and unreasonably broad. … Without that exemption you've basically shut down everything marijuana, even in licensed facilities."

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