FAIRBANKS — With a vote of 4-2, the Fairbanks City Council on Monday night postponed an ordinance that would have allowed onsite consumption of cannabis at approved retail locations inside city limits.
Fairbanks General Code currently prohibits onsite consumption of marijuana “even if authorized by state law.”
The objective of postponement is to introduce a substitute ordinance creating a ballot measure for October’s general election, thereby allowing residents to approve or reject onsite consumption. The council will revisit the subject on April 22.
Councilwomen Shoshana Kun and Kathryn Ottersten, co-sponsors of the ordinance, voted against postponement, which was first proposed by Councilman Jerry Cleworth.
Regardless of what the council voted, Cleworth expected residents to put together a ballot initiative to overturn their decision.
His concern was that voter initiatives are an incredible drain on city resources.
“It belongs in the laps of people. But if you make me decide, and not postpone, I will be deciding in favor of the police,” Cleworth said, referencing opposition from the Fairbanks Police Department.
Police Chief Eric Jewkes said at an April 4 work session that onsite consumption could create an untenable strain on an understaffed department.
“To be cutting edge requires people, requires time and that’s something we just don’t have,” Jewkes said at the work session.
Deputy Police Chief Dan Welborn followed up at Monday’s meeting.
While specifying that he wouldn’t know the percentage of DUIs in which marijuana was a factor without looking at each individual case, Welborn noted that DUI arrests totaled 282 in 2018, a sharp increase over 182 arrests in 2016.
“Could be alcohol, could be drugs, could be a combination,” Welborn said of the DUIs.
He also said that while the Police Department doesn’t work closely with any retail marijuana stores, “we haven’t really had any issues with them either.”
Assemblywoman Kun said she authored the ordinance to coalesce city and state law.
“Us voters knew that we were voting to regulate marijuana like alcohol,” Kun said of the 2014 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana.
She was addressing comments by Cleworth and others that they believed onsite consumption was not identified as an objective in 2014’s ballot measure, based on the interpretation of the term “public.”
Council members voiced a myriad of viewpoints toward on-site consumption, particularly in regards to a resolution the council adopted in 2017 supporting smoke-free workplaces in Alaska, for which a law was passed in 2018.
“To make a complete u-turn on that, just doesn’t sit right. … It flies in the face of all of the very concerted effort and research that we did in supporting smoke-free workplace,” Councilwoman June Rogers said.
Councilman David Pruhs’ comments were also aimed at smoke-free workplace laws, and what he called special privilege.
“I cannot vote for this, because I’m giving a special privilege to someone, and not others,” Pruhs said.
Councilwoman Valerie Therrien acknowledged being torn on the issue. “I think we really need to support what the Police Department is saying … at the same time a portion of our community really needs on-site consumption.”
She also voiced skepticism at claims made during public comment, “I don’t think second-hand smoke causes the intoxication that some of the people think.”
Councilwoman Ottersten hit a similar note. “Some of these dire predictions about people getting too stoned on one gram, hopping in their car and driving, I find frankly to be insulting,” she said.
Public comment favored onsite consumption by a small margin.
Proponents frequently compared the potential harm of weed to alcohol and mentioned how low-income people are the ones most stymied by having no place to smoke. They also criticized the continuation of reefer madness propaganda.
Keenan Hollister owns a marijuana retail shop in Fairbanks, and he’s “tired and frustrated of cannabis consumers being treated like second-class citizens.”
He’s upset with the idea that onsite consumption is a terrible idea because anyone who visits will be forced to drive stoned. “The same ride-share services and taxi cabs and bike paths and feet exist for cannabis consumers as alcohol consumers,” he said.
Hollister also criticized the issue of trying to legislate morality, as everyone has different ethics.
Pearson Kennedy-Crosby noted the overwhelming support Fairbanks has already given legal cannabis at the ballot box.
“I think it’s both irresponsible and impractical to legalize cannabis and not give us a legal, designated place to use it,” Kennedy-Crosby said.
Those opposed were concerned about impaired driving, the idea that second-hand smoke will affect unwilling public and the desire for a community free of intoxicants.
“With mind-altering drugs, all of them, you’re going to be impaired. … A lot of it’s smoked, so you can’t have a designated driver in a smoking facility,” Lance Roberts, a former Borough Assemblyman, said.
Christine Robbins called the ordinance “particularly dangerous” because “marijuana smoke affects everyone around it.”
Many opponents also cited and echoed Jewkes’ work session comments.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.