Alaska News

Assembly kills proposal to ban marijuana sales in Anchorage

An ordinance that would have banned commercial marijuana in Anchorage failed after four hours of public testimony and debate in Assembly chambers Tuesday night.

The Assembly voted 9-2 just after 10 p.m. to kill the measure. Only members Amy Demboski and Paul Honeman supported the measure.

Demboski introduced the proposal last month, hoping the city would take a "wait and see approach" as state lawmakers craft marijuana regulations.

But several Assembly members expressed concern that a ban would disconnect them from conversations regarding marijuana regulations at the state level.

"I'm fearful the message on 'opt out' will send key legislators in Anchorage to the sidelines," said Assemblyman Bill Starr. "That will make my work harder."

Demboski said her goal in bringing the legislation forward was not to stifle pot in Anchorage, but to begin to move the conversation forward on big topics dealing with the substance, including potential issues at the federal level. She noted it will especially be important to engage with Alaska's congressional delegation on how to mitigate potential federal impacts.

"It's bringing the conversation forward," Demboski said.


Bruce Schulte, with the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, said he was surprised to see the Assembly kill the measure, noting that co-sponsor Dick Traini ultimately voted against it. Still, he said, it was good to get the public talking about potential impacts of marijuana legalization.

"The most resounding message is that we still have a lot of work ahead," Schulte said.

In hours of testimony in the Assembly chambers at Z.J. Loussac Public Library, most people spoke in opposition to the ordinance. Medical marijuana cardholders wept at the struggle of trying to get their medicine illegally. Many worried about city finances and said the Assembly should not shy away from new revenue in the form of taxable marijuana sales. Some mentioned distrust of officials for considering circumventing Alaska voters' wishes.

Newly elected Assembly chair Traini kept the roughly 75 people who testified on track, making sure they stuck to their three-minute allotted time on AO-148. Traini quickly stifled occasional cheers and claps from the audience.

In November, Alaskans by a margin of 53 to 47 percent voted to approve Ballot Measure 2, an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in the state. Just weeks after the measure passed, Assembly member and mayoral candidate Demboski introduced the ordinance that would allow Anchorage to take advantage of the "opt out" provision of the measure, which allows communities to ban commercial marijuana. Assembly members Traini and Honeman also backed the measure.

Demboski, who represents Eagle River on the Assembly, said before public testimony she had heard from many in her community about the ordinance. Some personally thanked her, she said, and one person even approached her in an Eagle River coffee shop and hugged her for introducing the resolution.

But she had also heard from the other side, she said, mostly in emails from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol in Alaska. The group moved swiftly to work against the ordinance, encouraging people via social media to come to the Assembly meeting and encouraging them to contact individual Assembly members.

"I'm a cautious person," Demboski said. "There's just a lot we don't know yet."

Deborah Williams, who served as a spokesperson for the campaign opposing Ballot Measure 2, said in testimony Tuesday that she sensed hypocrisy in proponents of the measure, who emphasized the local option for communities but seemed to back away from it during the ordinance debate.

"There were lots of promises during the campaign," she said, noting rhetoric about regulation of things like marijuana advertising, edibles and butane hash oil. "This gives you bargaining power for the Legislature," she said of the proposed city ban.

Jeff Jessee, who also worked on the campaign, worried that there's so much unknown with regulations that it makes sense to stop marijuana before it gets going.

"We need to temper expectations that it will be open season for this industry in Anchorage," Jessee testified.

But June Pittman-Unsworth, one of several medical marijuana patients who ended up in tears while testifying, said she has no legal way to get it and has no ability to grow it herself.

"The state failed me -- don't let the city fail me," Pittman-Unsworth said. "This ordinance is premature and open-ended. There's no date on when to comply. I want you to think about that."

Rev. Michael Burke of Common Sense on Marijuana in Alaska, a group of business and faith leaders looking to have a voice in the regulatory process, asked the city to hold off on the ordinance, saying it did not pass the "red face" test and said he worries voters will be cynical of leaders because the ordinance is coming so soon after the initiative was passed.

Burke said his group and others would work to make sure that responsible regulation is enacted, including addressing issues with treatment, safety and keeping businesses small.

"There is a lot at stake here in getting the regulations right," Burke said.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.