Petersburg’s borough assembly next month will continue work on a local law to regulate how future marijuana businesses will be able to operate in the borough. Some local residents are asking for a public vote on whether such businesses should be allowed here at all. A community “opt out” vote is allowed under the statewide ballot initiative passed by voters in 2014. However, the assembly did not make any decisions about an “opt out” vote, or the pot law last night.
The assembly heard just over an hour of public testimony on regulating local pot businesses and whether the issue should go to a public vote. Some were opposed to a prohibition on marijuana businesses.

Mike Tolson said he was cancer patient and pot user. He said local medical users had no way to purchase pot legally. “Yes they buy it illegally in town,” Tolson said. “The only places we can go and get it we can’t bring it back legally. Go to Anchorage and I can buy it, no huff, no fuff. No nothing. Marijuana card don’t mean nothing.”

Others argued that opting out would do nothing to end sales of pot in Petersburg and thought alcohol sales were more of a danger to the community than marijuana.
The assembly also heard from businesses that are hoping to operate here. Gary Morgan has applied for a state cultivation license under the business name Southeast Moog Droog, located near Papkes Landing, about 10 miles south of town.

“Petersburg has an opportunity to welcome a new industry, one that will create good paying jobs for locals and more tax revenue for the borough,” Morgan said. “I would recommend the borough consider some additional local taxation. As a resident I would like to see the borough earn some new tax revenue.”

Morgan’s is one of two businesses in the Petersburg borough seeking a marijuana license from the state. Susie Burrell wants to sell pot from the rear of her main street restaurant and offer a local smoking room, if that’s an option. Burrell didn’t think it was fair to be considering a pot business ban now.

“The gentleman back there with the grow operation, we’ve already invested thousands of dollars in what we’re already doing,” Burrell said. “This is something that should’ve been decided before the application for these things came out in February in my opinion.” Burrell thought the opt out issue should have been decided by Petersburg’s committee that was formed to make recommendation on a pot ordinance.

Susie Burrell is planning to open a retail pot store at the rear of her restaurant on main street in Petersburg next year.

Susie Burrell is planning to open a retail pot store at the rear of her restaurant on main street in Petersburg next year.

During meetings last year and this year, committee members voiced little interest in a prohibition on pot businesses. However several members of that committee this spring sent letters and emails to the borough supporting such a vote. That committee didn’t come to agreement on any recommendations, other than to suggest a smaller pot business buffer zone than the 500 foot requirement in state regulation.

And others testifying before the assembly this month thought the issue should be voted on. Sherri Wikan wanted to hear about limits on the numbers of businesses and where they could operate. “I’m not saying necessarily to opt out but I am saying that I don’t think, I personally do not want to see it in our downtown area,” Wikan said. “I just don’t feel that it’s a good thing to do.”

Another local resident Tom Marsh questioned the pot business supporters comparisons to alcohol sales. “Everyone of ’em is telling us its bad,” Marsh said. “Everyone of ’em has said that they know it’s bad. And as a community we’re making a decision to distribute something that every person who is pro-marijuana has just said, not as bad as.”

Assembly members were hearing public comment on a draft local law for how pot businesses will operate. That draft inserts language into Petersburg’s law on alcohol sales and would essentially regulate pot businesses nearly the same way as that existing liquor law with a few exceptions. Approval of that law has been put on hold until the borough updates its local smoke-free law to make an allowance for pot smoking at a local shop – that’s something that would be allowed under the proposed marijuana law.

The decision to put an opt out question before voters was not on the assembly’s agenda this month, but it was an issue raise by assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter. The opt out vote came up as an discussion item later in the meeting. Wohlhueter wanted to make decisions slowly.

“If we were to rush headlong into this sorta thing without getting more, getting as much information as we can, because we only have one chance to get it right,” he said. “And then we have generations to live with it if its wrong. I’d hate to see us untie the boat before we get the chance to get the engine started.”

Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor wondered why Wohlhueter was pursuing an opt out vote now. Stanton Gregor chaired the committee established to make pot law recommendations and he cited the 2014 vote numbers. “58 percent as was cited earlier of people in Petersburg voted for it, commercial sales not just legal marijuana and I don’t want to be responsible at this point for usurping the vote of the people,” Stanton Gregor said. “They voted clearly and we moved forward accordingly. I will not be supporting putting opt out on the ballot.”

Other assembly members said they were inclined to advance the marijuana ordinance next month and make changes then, along with the changes to the local smoking law. The assembly meets next on Monday June 6th at noon and plans another public hearing on the topic. The mayor and assembly encouraged more public input on the topic.