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Cannabis controversy: Can concerned Alaskans share a truth?

  • Author: Lindianne Sarno
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 19, 2016

Shall Homer City Council ban commercial cannabis cultivation, testing, processing and sales from Homer? Already a majority of Palmer voters and the Wasilla city council have answered yes to a similar question. Others may answer their own way before too long. Alaskans and local governments around the state are posing similar questions in ordinances and local ballot items. But this question is being discussed right now in Homer, and I believe the entire state can benefit from listening in on Homer's dialog.

Homer City Council members Heath Smith, Bryan Zak, Donna Aderhold and Gus Van Dyke voted to introduce ordinance 1606 to ban commercial cannabis. As a director of the Kachemak Cannabis Coalition, I interviewed these council members, looking for common ground. We did find common ground: We agree (1) that Homer is fundamentally divided about cannabis, and (2) that the two sides are working from two different sets of facts.

The non-cannabis culture is frightened. Families inexperienced with cannabis wonder what to expect from legalization. Concerned about alcohol, pot, meth, heroin and the prescription drug epidemic currently ravaging American communities, families want to protect youths. These families wonder, how will legal pot impact our town? Can we prevent cannabis from falling into the hands of our young? Marijuana has been viewed as bad and taboo; now suddenly it's legal? How do we explain this to our kids?

On the other hand, the cannabis culture sees the opt-out provision proposed by council members as a serious form of economic and cultural discrimination against a peaceable culture that suffered decades of persecution. Just as we welcome, with relief, the end of an onerous prohibition, here come local prohibitionists, citing bogus studies, stopping economic development and negating Alaskans' vote to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Cannabis is an existing industry that voted to emerge from the black market to be taxed and contribute to the community.

I asked each council member, "What is your essential motive for introducing this ordinance to ban?"

Just elected, Heath Smith is looking for ways to represent the entire community. He wants us to pause and make sure we understand the overall impact of legalization.

Bryan Zak commented: "Legalization is so new to Alaska. Our city will be on the leading edge if we allow commercial cannabis cultivation and retail sales. Do we clearly understand its impact on the community?"

Gus Van Dyke hopes to keep commercial cannabis out of the city because, he said, "We don't need another alcohol-type thing added to alcohol; we have a big enough problem with alcohol. I don't have a problem with private individual use."

Donna Aderhold aims to provide an opportunity to listen to the people. She points out that the statewide vote wasn't a mandate; it was 53 percent to 47 percent. She wants to hear from both sides.

I also spoke with Mayor Beth Wythe. Regarding the two different sets of facts, Mayor Wythe thinks it's impossible to find a documented core truth that everyone can agree on. "On an emotional issue like this, people look for information to support their point of view," she said.

But Smith, Zak and Van Dyke, as well as council members Dave Lewis and Catriona Reynolds, want to engage in a common search for truth. Van Dyke said, "If we can sift through all the stuff we hear and see, and come to a true understanding of the relevant facts, I'm all for that. If you engage in fact finding, if you can prove or show there is no harm to the general public with legalization, that having it around, the kids won't be as badly abused as they are around alcohol, I would change my mind in a heartbeat."

Let us continue to search for the truth about cannabis, because truth sets us free from fear. Here are a few good questions to start the process: In what jurisdictions (globally) is cannabis now completely legal? After legalization in those jurisdictions, what has been the impact on public health? On local culture? On local economy? Can a human being overdose and die from cannabis, as Mayor Wythe believes? What economic interests are served (1) by banning the cannabis industry, or (2) by growing the cannabis industry?

Smith and Van Dyke, Aderhold and Zak asked me to consider, separately, (1) the social and public health impact of legalization, and (2) the economic impact of cannabis legalization. Accordingly, I will produce two more commentaries. Whatever your position, kindly send your thoughts and references to studies to me at

Alaska's cannabis culture is attempting to respond, respectfully, to the concerns, fears and questions of the non-cannabis culture. Statistics are compiled by governments. Scientifically valid studies are available. I believe we can arrive at one set of facts. I believe Alaska communities can unite around a program of public heath education that addresses the many serious health issues revolving around addiction. Can we not vilify each other; can we calm each other's fears and attempt to understand and respect each other in our common search for truth?

Lindianne Sarno is a music educator in Homer and director of the Kachemak Cannabis Coalition, which has an educational mission. She also serves on the City of Homer Cannabis Advisory Commission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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