It was a vote on an ordinance that, upon introduction, I figured would be shelved, or postponed, or laughed at, or any combination thereof.
Then it was a vote that seemed like it had the support to pass by a sizable majority. And I had a sad.
Finally, after hours of public testimony on Tuesday night, those watching the Anchorage Assembly meeting saw a vote that not only killed an ordinance that would have opted Alaska’s largest city out of the retail sale of recreational and medicinal marijuana, but added several punctuation marks to adorn the tombstone.
Politics are weird. But, hey, sometimes lawmakers get it right. At least, according to me.Photo by Thomas Belarde
Eagle River Assembly member and mayoral candidate Amy Demboski introduced Anchorage Ordinance 148 (AO-148) a month ago — just two weeks after voters passed a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana by a slim majority. Demboski’s proposal took advantage of a clause in the ballot initiative that allows localities to opt out. Under that provision, local governments can ban retail sale of marijuana, while possession and cultivation would remain legal.
(Warning to other states considering legalization: Local opt out clauses are important. But do yourselves a favor and require local opt outs to be decided by popular vote; not by local governments. The former keeps voting to end prohibition, the latter has kept it in place for over a century.)
Despite the fact that the vote to make marijuana legal in Anchorage is, today, less than two months old, Demboski’s ordinance was already the second time this year that the Assembly had considered legislation pertaining to legal pot. In September, the body passed a resolution opposing the ballot measure. The pro-legalization campaign cried foul, accusing midtown Assembly member Dick Traini — who was elected chair of the Assembly at the outset of Tuesday night’s meeting and who sponsored the resolution opposing legalization — of colluding with the No on 2 campaign (who opposed the initiative).
The resolution that recommended voters oppose legal marijuana passed 9-2.
So, Demboski’s ordinance to follow through on that symbolic gesture seemed to have more than the sufficient amount of wind at its back.
Tuesday night saw a packed assembly chambers, filled with Anchorage residents eager to weigh in on the ordinance.
It was more than lopsided. 78 people testified. 59 opposed the ordinance and wanted to see marijuana legalized. Of the nine people who showed up to oppose legal weed, three were spokespersons for the campaign that opposed the initiative in the midterms.
But majorities aren’t for everyone. Christine Hill told the assembly that she supported AO-148. “Just because the majority of people have spoken and have voted — and it’s a slight majority I might add — but that doesn’t make it right. It was a majority that crucified Christ.”
Anchorage residents backed legalization for many reasons, but the most prominent among them rooted their arguments in an appeal to the assembly to respect the will of the voters.
Reverend Michael Burke, who was a member of the “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. No on 2” campaign shocked a lot of people when he spoke in opposition to the proposal to opt out:
However we might have felt about the wisdom of the initiative itself, we believe that debate is now over. To say that voters only approved the legalization of marijuana, but were silent on the issue of actually being able to legally being able to purchase any, does not pass the red face test. In a municipality that voted in favor of the initiative, this is a distinction without a meaningful difference. The decision has been made by direct democracy — that is the vote of the people themselves, after a full public debate. For the Assembly to act otherwise increases the cynicism of citizens who have exercised their right to vote on this matter just a short six weeks ago.
Others spoke because they needed access to medical marijuana. Alaska legalized the medicinal use of marijuana by ballot measure in 1998, but there is no process or legal way to purchase it. Patients, who have been prescribed marijuana to treat illnesses, still have to commit a crime to attain their medicine.
“I’m on the medical registry and not able to get the drug that assists me. My normal pain doctor said she would prescribe it to me, except she has no place to refer me,” June Pittman told assembly members in tears. “Don’t let my city fail me.”
Adele Davis spoke for her son:
I had a 19-year-old child shot and killed over a pocket lint amount of marijuana in Anchorage, downtown. Had there been regulation, legal access, where adults would choose to use recreational marijuana, or those who have had it prescribed to them by physicians, can go and safely be IDed, questioned, and confirmed that they are of age to purchase their marijuana — I speak to you from experience — is a much safer environment for our community and for our children. What we have now is not safe. And what you’re trying to do right now would bring all of the black market into Anchorage.
When testimony closed, Ernie Hall proposed an amendment to add a sunset clause to the ordinance, which would make the ordinance expire on December 31, 2016. “We’ve got to go through a process here where the state has got nine months to write their regulation,” Hall said. “So after we get the state regulations, we don’t have the ability to ignore state regulations, but we can make ours stiffer regulations.”
“The premise of Mr. Hall’s amendment is that we’ve elected to sort of opt out. That’s a message that I don’t particularly want to send,” Eagle River Assembly member Bill Starr said. “The theory of ‘opt out first, wait and see’ and then opt back in doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Starr highlighted the concern that opting out now might remove Anchorage legislators’ ability to have a seat at the table when the state legislature begins crafting the framework for legalized and commercial marijuana. If Anchorage were to prematurely opt out of the ballot initiative’s implications, it may inspire other elected officials to ignore their opinions when policy is crafted. They wouldn’t have skin in the game.
The amendment failed, 5-6.Photo by Thomas Belarde
During the closing statements before the final vote, east side Assembly person Pete Petersen said he owed people an apology. “I’ve served two terms, four years, in the state legislature. And when I was down there, I did not introduce any legislation to help any medical marijuana users get the medicine that they need,” Petersen said. “And after hearing several people tonight discuss their troubles and the pain that they’ve been in because of this, I feel like I’ve really dropped the ball.”
Petersen said it was important to move forward and follow the will of the people.
Starr complimented the night’s speakers. “I like less laws, but I think in this case regulation is going to be required,” he said. “I think it is a question of taking the lead on the regulations… [and] I think that having a purchase option outside of Anchorage, as opposed to in Anchorage, quite frankly, is just inconvenient.”
“I was opposed to Ballot Measure 2. I don’t agree with it. I still don’t agree with it. I voted no on it, and I disagree with the vast majority of this room that voted in favor apparently. But the vote went and I have to live with the results,” Bill Evans said. “It’s very clear to me that the people voted to commercialize marijuana and they voted in Anchorage to do that. And I think, as elected officials, we have an obligation to do our best to responsibly effectuate the will of the people as evidenced by that vote.”
Evans, elected to his first term on the assembly back in April, said that if the framework created by the legislature looked like a train wreck, he reserved the right to advocate opting out later.
After an awkward moment of silence, Traini asked Flynn if he wanted to comment on the bill. Flynn responded with a simple “Nope.”
“For whoever thought they would know how it was going to come out tonight had no idea. They should get a new ouiji ball,” Traini said. “Because this body is going to go however it’s going to go. And coming in here, you might have thought that we were going to approve this. You might have thought we were going to unanimously approved this. I don’t think that’s going to happen. So please don’t anticipate how we’re going to vote, because you’d be wrong.”
Only Demboski and Honeman voted in support; a complete reversal from the vote on the resolution opposing Ballot Measure 2 taken just a couple of months ago.
As I said at the start, I thought the bill would be tabled. I never thought it would be given a full night of testimony, concluding in an up or down vote. Now, I’m more curious as to why it was.