Measure calling for city vote on pot sales moves forward

Editor’s note: The article has been changed to correct the name of Walter Swearingen and to clarify his medical situation regarding pain medication.

Had Irwin Ravin been alive Monday to see the Homer City Council debate commercial cannabis in the city, he might have been amazed to hear the word “marijuana” used so often in a public meeting. 

The public testified on three ordinances concerning how to regulate the cultivation, manufacturing, testing and sale of cannabis, a frank and open discussion that few could have imagined when in 1975 Ravin, a Homer resident, won an Alaska Supreme Court decision saying the Alaska Constitution’s right to privacy protects an adult’s personal use of pot.

“Thanks, sponsors, for giving us this opportunity to say ‘marijuana’ so many times in this public forum,” said former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Mako Haggerty. “I find this refreshing. What we’re witnessing are the death throes of a longtime demonizing of a benign drug.”

Haggerty’s assessment might be premature. On the table were three ordinances that would decide the future of commercial cannabis inside city limits. By evening’s end, the council took action on these ordinances:

• Ordinance 16-06, introduced by council members Heath Smith and Gus VanDyke, would ban by council action commercial cannabis. Up for second reading and a public reading, it died for a lack of a second.

• Ordinance 16-07, introduced by Mayor Beth Wythe, would put the question to ban commercial cannabis to a vote by the people. In a 3-3 vote with Smith, VanDyke and council member Bryan Zak voting yes and council members David Lewis, Catriona Reynolds and Donna Aderhold voting no, Wythe broke the tie and voted yes to move the ordinance forward. Lewis did get an amendment added to move the vote earlier to a special election on April 19. Although some council members spoke as if the ordinance was already passed, it goes up for a second reading, public hearing and final action at the next meeting on March 14.

• Ordinance 16-04 (a)(s)(2), an ordinance that would regulate by zoning district commercial cannabis in Homer. Aderhold asked for reconsideration on an amendment allowing limited cultivation of 500-square-foot cannabis grows on lots more than 20,000-square-feet in the Rural Residential district. That amendment was removed on reconsideration. The council also approved an amendment requested by Wythe that would suspend enactment of the ordinance pending the rejection by voters of a commercial cannabis ban in the special election.

However, that amendment assumed passage of 16-07, the vote on the ban. In public comments at the end, Reynolds pointed out that discrepancy.

“What happens if we don’t move forward with a vote?” she asked.

Because of confusion regarding how the motion to remove limited cannabis cultivation from the Rural Residential district was made, on Tuesday afternoon Reynolds asked for reconsideration of Ordinance 16-04 (a)(s)(2). That will give the council a chance to address the issue of the election amendment, too.

About 70 people attended Monday night’s meeting, with some listening in the Planning Department offices which were open for overflow seating. Most testimony ran against a ban on commercial cannabis. 

On the issue of putting the vote to the people, 17 spoke against and two for it. 

On the issue of the council banning commercial cannabis, 21 spoke against it and four for it. Testimony was more sedate on the amendment to remove limited cultivation from Rural Residential districts.

Most of the testimony against a commercial cannabis ban said that a vote or council action wasn’t necessary. With Homer precincts voting 53 percent in favor of Ballot Measure 2, the people already had voted, speakers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Carrie Harris against 16-07. “I hope you don’t declare war on the citizens, because that’s what you’re going to get if you take this to a vote.”

“I think readdressing through another vote would have a negative consequence for everybody,” said Michael McGuire, owner of K-Bay Caffé .

“To me this is a direct confrontation to the democratic process,” said Walter Swearingen. 

Swearingen and his wife, Ruth, also spoke of how he had come to rely too much on opiate pain medication. Cannabis helped him get off pain pills and get relief. Swearingen was prescribed hydrocodone after several back surgeries. His wife spoke in favor of making cannabis available safely for people with medical marijuana cards. 

Others spoke in favor of a commercial cannabis ban or a vote on it.

“We’re not debating if medical marijuana is legal. We’re debating if we should have these dispensaries,” said Joni Wise, who ran for city council in October.

“I believe that allowing retail marijuana stores is not in the best interest of our community,” said Christin Funkhauser of the Salvation Army. “As a social worker I see the effects of recreational drugs and alcohol use on a daily basis.”

Roberta Highland, a member of the Homer Advisory and Planning Commission, said she felt the city needed more time to consider the implications of commercial cannabis. The planning commission had recommended to the council 16-04, the ordinance regulating cannabis by zoning district.

“We have a lot of questions. When we have a lot of questions, we need to slow down,” she said.

One man, Dan Miotke, a Homer Volunteer Fire Department firefighter and medic, said he’d heard the debate on KBBI Public Radio and came to testify. 

“My concern is do we want to open this up free range at this point?” he said. “They’re worried if this goes out to a vote it will go down. What’s wrong with that? Let’s have a vote.”

“The state says the city has an option. I’d like to see a conversation about that,” said Robert Archibald.

Archibald referred to Smith’s justification in introducing his ordinance. Ballot Measure 2 asked voters if they wanted to legalize personal and medical use and tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana in Alaska. In four lines of the 39-line ballot question, the language also said “the bill would allow a local government to prohibit the operation of marijuana-related entities” and that “a local government could do that by enacting an ordinance or through voter initiative.”

Wythe argued that when voters passed Ballot Measure 2, they also approved a local option provision.

“The voters voted to make it legal in Alaska. I understand. I don’t think the voters decided to make it legal in Homer,” Wythe said at the committee of the whole meeting.

Smith agreed with that point.

“What we know with Ballot Measure 2 is through its passage provided an opportunity for this discussion to happen,” he said. “I know some people don’t enjoy revisiting this. I understand the frustration. It deserves to be talked about. The voice of the people needs to be heard.”

Lewis said the voters understood what they were doing when they approved Ballot Measure 2.

“I think we are hanging ourselves when we’re saying we don’t want to follow the will of the voters,” Lewis said. “We’re saying they didn’t understand what they were voting for. That’s insulting to the voters.”

Wythe said she also wanted to put the question to a vote because there would probably be an initiative to ban commercial cannabis anyway. 

“Based on conversations, I feel like there are a lot of people out there who are going to bring this to the table whether we do something or not,” Wythe said.

Reynolds echoed Lewis’ point.

“I do think voters have already spoken on this. I don’t think there will be any problem passing this,” she said, referring to approval of commercial cannabis. “I don’t think we need to go through the expense of an election.”

Public comment on removing limited cultivation from Rural Residential zoning district was more sedate. Commercial cannabis supporters said it wasn’t an issue of major concern.

“Let’s back off on it,” said Jeremiah Emmerson, a strong supporter of commercial cannabis in general. “It’s a scary thing — it’s a new kid on the block. We don’t know what he’s going to do.” 

Lewis said that practically speaking, given the regulations for setting up a limited cultivation with things like security cameras and lighting, “it’s going to be way too expensive,” he said. 

Ordinance 16-07, Wythe’s proposed vote on banning commercial cannabis, will go up for a second reading during the public hearing section of the next meeting starting at 6 p.m. March 14 in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at