City council considers ban on all commercial cannabis

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information clarifying how a commercial cannabis ban in Homer would affect the area outside of Homer in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. A ban would not affect those areas.

Should Homer regulate commercial cannabis activities by zoning district and allow the cultivation, testing, manufacturing and sale of pot?

Or, should Homer opt out and prohibit completely all commercial marijuana operations?

At a marathon Homer City Council meeting that went to 11 p.m. Monday night, while the council did not take final action on either proposal, in 4-2 votes it advanced both ideas for further debate. In almost 2.5 hours of public testimony, 44 people testified on two cannabis ordinances, with overwhelming testimony for commercial cannabis and against prohibiting it.

That testimony didn’t sway some on the council.

“In the end I don’t want to see Homer become more cosmic than hamlet,” said Heath Smith, who introduced the ordinance banning commercial cannabis. “There’s a balance there.”

Council member David Lewis pointed out a little-known aspect of a commercial cannabis ban. Under the local option chapter of state marijuana regulations that become law on Feb. 21, a ban on commercial cannabis in an incorporated city would affect unincorporated areas surrounding that city up to a 10-mile radius. Lewis called that a government overreach.

However, anything the city does would not affect property within the Kenai Peninsula Borough, an incorporated, second-class borough. At the request of Cynthia Franklin, the director of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Board, the Alaska Department of Law last Friday provided an opinion clarifying confusion regarding how a ban on commercial cannabis in Homer would affect the area outside city limits. Such a ban would not affect surrounding areas, Franklin wrote in an email.

“If the area outside the city’s boundaries is within another local government, the 10-mile rule would not apply,” Franklin wrote.

Under state cannabis regulations, a local-option ban of commercial cannabis in an incorporated city also would affect an area 10-miles out from city limits if that area is unincorporated. However, the area outside of Homer is part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, a second-class incorporated borough, or other cities like Seldovia and Kachemak City. 

The council took these actions:

• It approved an amendment to Ordinance 16-04(a) by council member David Lewis to allow limited cultivation of cannabis on 20,000-square-foot or larger lots in Rural Residential districts. Council members Donna Aderhold, Lewis, Catriona Reynolds and Gus VanDyke voted yes while council members Heath Smith and Bryan Zak voted no.

• It also introduced Ordinance 16-06 by council members Smith and VanDyke that would prohibit all commercial cannabis activities. Aderhold, Smith, VanDyke and Zak voted yes and Lewis and Reynolds — both members of the Cannabis Advisory Commission — voted no.

Neither ordinance would affect personal cannabis use made legal by Ballot Measure 2, approved in 2014 by 53 percent of Homer voters and passed statewide. Adults 21 and older can grow, possess, use and transport cannabis for personal or medicinal use.

Ordinances 16-04 and 16-06 will be voted on for final action at the Feb. 22 council meeting. The zoning ordinance has a second public hearing while the prohibition ordinance has its first public hearing and second reading. Either can be amended. 

The zoning ordinance, 16-04, came to the council from the Homer Advisory Planning Commission, which had been working on recommendations since last August. The Cannabis Advisory Commission also had made regulatory recommendations. When 16-04 was introduced at the Jan. 25 council meeting, the council voted to not allow retail sales in the Marine Commercial zoning district on the Homer Spit. Limited cultivation would be for 500-square-feet grow operations in buildings with air scrubbers, security cameras and setbacks.

Ordinance 16-06 got the most public comments. Of 32 speaking, 26 opposed a ban on commercial cannabis. Jeremiah Emmerson said he got 121 signatures in three days on an online petition opposing the ban. Smith said he got 110 signatures on a petition in favor.

Emmerson said lots of people have been working hard to move forward on a cannabis industry.

“I felt like we were heading in the right direction. I have a lot of confidence in the city council. I think everybody is going to make a good decision at the end of the day,” he said.

Chad Matthews, a Homer business owner who opposed retail sales on the Spit, spoke in favor of a ban. He said commercial cannabis would bring in big investors out to make big profits.

“They’re here to make money. That’s when things get corrupt,” he said. “When we talk about money and large corporations, it seems like in the past Homer’s voted against that.”

Beth Carroll, recently appointed to the Cannabis Advisory Commission, urged the council not to entertain Smith’s ordinance.

“Homer has put a lot of time and energy into opting in,” she said. “I find it insulting and invalidating to the time of the planning commission and the cannabis commission.”

A former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member, Mako Haggerty, admitted he uses cannabis. He said the ban wouldn’t protect anybody.

“If this ordinance passes, I’ll tell you who the loser is — it’s the city. I’ll tell you the winner — it’s the black market,” he said.

Patrick Brown, the chair of the Homer Economic Development Commission, said the economics do not justify commercial cannabis. He also said there is a social cost.

“While some advocate there is decreased crime, I would ask someone to speak from Haven House. The number one reason for domestic violence, it’s marijuana and alcohol,” he said.

Reached after the meeting, Rachel Romberg, one of the interim directors for South Peninsula Haven House, said there is high co-occurrence between alcohol use and domestic violence and sexual assault — but not for pot.

“Cannabis is the drug that we see causing the least amount of problems,” she said. 

Frank Hodnik said he could see from the cultural perspective why some might fear commercial cannabis.

“Everything about it is unknown and everything about it is scary,” he said. “The concept that cannabis is coming from rapscallions who want nothing more than to sell marijuana to children and nuns is really a knee-jerk response.”

In debate on 16-06, Smith defended his ordinance. He acknowledged that Homer voters approved Ballot Measure 2, but said that included the local option to ban commercial operations. 

“To say that every one of those people did not take that into consideration and that would be enough to offset the 109 votes that separated this community, I’m not convinced of it,” he said.

Smith acknowledged the economic potential of commercial cannabis. “But at what costs?” he asked. “It’s like the Wild West. I’m not interested in being on the edge of the learning curve. I want to slow this down.”

Lewis said he’s seen far worse social effects from alcohol than cannabis.

“I spent 12 years in the villages,” Lewis said. “If there was going to be an intoxicant in the villages, I would much rather have pot than alcohol.”

Reynolds said she wanted to hear from people in the middle — people like her. She admitted she didn’t know how to vote on Ballot Measure 2 and abstained.

“I don’t support the ordinance,” she said. “I do appreciate the dialogue.”

Aderhold also said she was in the middle on the issue and voted no on Ballot Measure 2. She said presentations by city attorney Holly Wells and others helped her get a better appreciation of the commercial cannabis laws.

“Understanding how regulated it was going to be has been very impressive to me,” she said.

If the council passes the commercial cannabis ban as presented, there could be a legal challenge, said Cynthia Franklin, director of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Board. The state regulations take effect Feb. 21. If the council doesn’t include the 10-mile no-license zone in its local option ordinance, it could be in conflict with state regulations, she said.

“It’s an open question of whether or how that matter would be brought forward,” Franklin said. “We don’t know how it’s going to work out.”

The no-license zone comes out of state local-option laws which allow villages and cities to restrict sale, possession and importation of alcohol. Local option laws also have no-license buffers around cities.

Smith said he hadn’t been aware of the 10-mile rule when he introduced his ordinance.

“I think it feels a little excessive to me,” he said. “We could go to the state and say, ‘We’re willing to entertain a much smaller buffer.’”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.


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