Anchorage Moves to Block Public Consumption, Drawing Complaints

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City leaders in Anchorage, Alaska, are moving to clamp down on marijuana use in advance of reforms that will legalize the drug for recreational use.

alaska state marijuana leafThe Anchorage Assembly unanimously approved an ordinance that bans cannabis consumption in public. The new rule is in line with the ballot initiative enacted by Alaskan voters in November.

That law makes it a civil offense to light up in public anywhere in Alaska. The initiative, like the new ordinance in Anchorage, applies a $100 fine to violators.

City officials said they wanted to get a penalty in place before the state imposes its own rules on public consumption. That way, the city has more control over where and when residents can toke.

Voters approved legalization by a wide margin in November. The drug will be legal for personal consumption starting Feb. 24, though sale won’t be allowed until the state sets up a regulatory framework.

“Trying to cure it down the road will be much worse unless we set the standard from the beginning,” said Police Chief Mark Mew. “We don’t want to educate the public that we can’t enforce it by our inaction and try to get it back six months from now.”

Alaska is largely designated as public space

The key problem with the new policy in Anchorage is that huge swaths of Alaska are designated as public. National parks cover more ground there than anywhere else in the United States, except California.

Concerns over the definition of “public” drew substantial resistance at the assembly meeting Jan. 27. Most of the audience opposed the new policy, saying it would punish tokers for using weed almost anywhere outside their homes.

Joanne Henning of the Alaska Cannabis Association said she worried about whether tourists and locals would be able to patronize marijuana cafes similar to Amsterdam’s coffee shops.

“We voted to control it like alcohol,” Henning said. “We want a safe place to consume it like alcohol.”

Ordinance wording caused confusion

But assembly members said the ordinance would allow private facilities where the public can smoke weed. A change of wording in the ordinance apparently led to confusion over the effects of the rule.

Marijuana JointThe assembly modeled their new ordinance on an old one that applies to alcohol. That policy has a clause allowing some facilities to get exemptions from the public consumption rule, a clause that was absent in the new weed ordinance.

City Attorney Dennis Wheeler said another portion of the ordinance would allow for cafes. Including both provisions, he said, wouldn’t be “good drafting.”

But the assembly voted to include both clauses in order to avoid confusion and legal problems further down the road. At least one marijuana advocate said that move was an acceptable compromise.

Bruce Schulte, a local activist, said the change would ensure marijuana and alcohol are treated similarly.

“It’s an excess of caution,” Schulte said. “But let’s have parity.”

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