Soldotna trial lawyer Eric Derleth testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Jan. 20 during the introduction of an ordinance that intends to ask local voters if marijuana cultivation should be prohibited within the rural areas of the borough. Derleth is the co-founder of the Kenai Community Coalition on Cannabis, which has hosted two town hall forums to help educate residents on the benefits of marijuana in the community.-Photo by Dan Balmer/Morris News Service - Alaska

Public speaks against pot farm ban

An anticipated faceoff between a Wolf and a defense lawyer took center stage during two hours of public testimony at the Jan. 20 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.

A large audience that included members of the Kenai Community Cannabis Coalition and residents, mostly from the outlining areas of Kasilof, Nikiski and Homer, expressed overwhelming opposition to the introduction of an ordinance that, if passed through a voter initiative, would prohibit marijuana cultivation facilities in the rural areas of the borough.

Assembly member Kelly Wolf, who sponsored the ordinance, said he intended to postpone the testimony period a month to allow a constituent in opposition to be able to comment. The body initially came to a consensus that the ordinance should be “kicked down the road” to June, after the state Legislature and Alcohol Control Board have worked on the cannabis regulations. That delay would still leave the option for the ordinance to make it on the October ballot, if the assembly passed the ordinance.

After hearing from 30 people, three of whom supported the idea of a ballot measure to ask voters to prohibit  marijuana cultivation on the Kenai Peninsula, the assembly voted at about 10 p.m. to introduce the ordinance and set a public hearing for Feb. 24 — the day marijuana legalization goes into effect.

Assembly member Mako Haggerty of the lower Kenai Peninsula said the process made this one of the “most entertaining meetings” he has ever been a part of.

Soldotna trial lawyer and co-founder of KCCC Eric Derleth presented his case that the people have already made their voice heard on cannabis legalization and talked about the lucrative potential of cannabis industry on the Kenai Peninsula. He said the ordinance is masked as a zoning issue, against which he cited an Alaska Supreme Court ruling in Griswold vs. Homer in 2008 that zoning by initiatives or ordinances that do not go through the planning commission are inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.

“You are trying to kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer. That doesn’t make any sense,” Derleth said. “You are going to ban (growing) throughout all 15,000 square miles of the peninsula to prohibit possibly somebody uncomfortable with a marijuana grow in their rural neighborhood.”

Assembly member Stan Welles said the whole marijuana subject disappointed him.

“Why would anyone in this room want to add the guilt to their conscience of being party to hallucinating your neighbors?” Welles said.

Derleth said he didn’t understand Welles’ question.

“I have hosted two town halls and nobody has made one concern about a grow operation next door,” Derleth said. “Marijuana is not a hallucinogen. It’s a mild mood alterant.”

Leif Abel, Kenai regional director of Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, recommended the assembly follow the examples made by the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Anchorage assembly by working with the state while the regulations are discussed. When asked by assembly member Wayne Ogle if he was all right with a postponement of the ordinance to July, Abel said he was not.

“If local businesses want to have a foot in the industry they need to plan ahead,” he said. “Within the state if we banned it here, I’m sure Mat-Su Valley would be happy to grow as much marijuana as the people here want to consume and then benefit from the revenue.”

Wolf then shared his concern for why he put this ordinance on the agenda when he did. While attending an Alaska Municipal League conference last November, he heard a comment made after regulations are written the borough could be facing a taking issue. Wolf said a takings issue is a law that makes government liable for lost investments of businesses unable to operate due to laws passed after investment.

Derleth said that Wolf’s reasoning is fear mongering, and the consequence of affected property values as a result of cultivation sites is a non-issue. While Wolf said the marijuana initiative allows municipalities the authority to govern certain aspects of the industry, Derleth said liberty is the right to be left alone by government.

“The other intent of the initiative is to enhance individual liberty,” Derleth said. “How does your ordinance do that?”

Kasilof resident Rob Petrey said he was surprised by the lack of preparation and knowledge some of the assembly members had about marijuana. He said Welles’ comment of “hallucinating your neighbor,” was “wholly ignorant and without basis.”

“I don’t know if you realized it or not, you’ve done something almost impossible. You got a bunch of potheads off the couch and in the building to speak to you,” Petrey said. “Mr. Wolf, the way this ordinance stands to me lacks vision and is borderline asinine.”

Sherry Innes was in the minority who testified that Wolf’s ordinance was a responsible act by a politician to protect people. She said next time there will be more people to show up in support of the ordinance.

“A lot has been made about money to the borough. It’s an industry fueled by greed and doesn’t care about the danger to our children and problems with families created by drug addiction,” Innes said. “You’re our elected officials. We expect you to protect us the citizens from elements at the detriment of our community.”

Wolf made an amendment to postpone the ordinance until the June 16 assembly meeting. The amendment failed 6 to 3 and the public hearing date remained for Feb. 24. The assembly voted 5 to 4 to introduce the ordinance with Assembly President Dale Bagley, Vice President Sue McClure, assembly members Kelly Cooper of Homer and Haggerty voting no.

Cooper said she didn’t take offense to being called ignorant because the assembly still has the opportunity to educate each other on the issue. She said a delay would hinder interested marijuana small businesses from preparing for the licensing process.

“I have an objection to leave the public sitting in the unknown with the fear (cultivation could be) illegal in the borough when it totally goes against what I’m hearing from the public,” Cooper said.

After the meeting, Wolf said he did take offense to some of the comments but also acknowledged he learned something new — that there are different marijuana strains to treat different ailments.

 

Reach Dan Balmer at daniel.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com

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