Alaska Marijuana News

Southeast Alaska cities ask state to ease buffer zone for marijuana businesses

While many Alaska communities are looking to tighten restrictions on marijuana businesses, two Southeast cities are hoping for fewer constraints on the fledgling cannabis industry.

Petersburg and Sitka, two island cities in Southeast Alaska, have asked the state to reconsider its rules about buffer zones, saying they want more freedom to choose how far a marijuana business must be from certain facilities.

Under Alaska's commercial marijuana laws, canna-businesses must be 500 feet from schools, churches, correctional facilities, and recreational or youth centers.

In some compact communities, that eliminates nearly the entire downtown area. Petersburg and Sitka are limited in where businesses can go; Skagway and Ketchikan are too.

"There really are only a few slivers of land where someone's going to be able to have a business. … It's going to naturally restrict the industry," said Skagway borough clerk Emily Deach.

In downtown Petersburg, the rules leave just one building available for marijuana businesses, according to borough manager Stephen Giesbrecht.

"That's not ideal for tourists who come in on a tour boat," Giesbrecht said.


Upward of 20,000 people travel through Petersburg annually, he said, potentially bringing revenue to pot businesses.

Petersburg is picturesque and walkable, Giesbrecht said, but the same things that make it a nice place to live can also make it difficult for prospective marijuana business owners.

In early January, Petersburg's assembly voted to ask the state to reduce its buffer zone, KFSK reported. Sitka's assembly passed the same resolution days later, according to APRN. Both assemblies sent resolutions to the Department of Law asking for more local control over buffer zones.

"The city really just wanted to have the most tools in their tool box as possible," said Levi Albertson, chair of Sitka's Marijuana Advisory Committee. "There's such a small amount of available space as it is, that we felt these setbacks were a little restrictive."

Meanwhile, Skagway hasn't addressed the issue, Deach said, while Ketchikan has instituted its own, more restrictive buffer rules.

The state finalized its marijuana regulations on Dec. 1 and will begin accepting business applications next week.

Alaska communities can further restrict the state's laws in a number of ways -- for instance, shortening business hours, restricting the number of stores or banning them outright. Some towns, including Delta Junction and Wasilla, have already banned all businesses.

Communities don't have the power to loosen the state's restrictions, though. And the resolutions from Sitka and Petersburg will likely not lead to a change in the laws, at least in the short term.

"It seems unlikely to me at this point that the board will revisit this right now," said Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office Director Cynthia Franklin.

For the state's part, it says the 500-foot buffer zone is already risky.

"We're really the first state to break into the 1,000-foot federal school zone buffer," Franklin said. "Nobody's done that yet. We don't know how (the federal government will) respond to that."

The U.S. Department of Justice has provided guidance to states legalizing marijuana that want to avoid federal interference, and preventing access to minors is one of the federal requirements. A two-page letter from the federal government known as the Cole Memo has been invoked by Alaska officials throughout the process of crafting the laws.

Should the feds come calling, the state can base its case on the 500-foot buffer zone, as it is the state's drug-free school zone. "It's been in effect for years," Franklin said.

In Petersburg, Giesbrecht doesn't expect the state to change its tune. "Folks … are going to have to be farther away," he said.

Still, "people get very inventive on things like this," Giesbrecht added.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.