On-site consumption back on the table for Alaska pot businesses

A battery-powered oil rig, seen here at a 2015 cannabis job fair in Anchorage, heats small amount of concentrated cannabis product to the point of combustion. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

Alaska is on course to be the first state in the country to allow customers to use cannabis inside regulated businesses. But the issue is far from settled.

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During a meeting in Fairbanks last week, the state’s Marijuana Control Board approved a proposal from member Brandon Emmett laying out guide-lines for what’s called on-site consumption, that is eating or smoking cannabis products inside licensed retail shops. The measure would let retail businesses open up areas to use cannabis provided they meet criteria like a ventilation system, a separate consumption area and ensuring people aren’t bringing in outside product. Local governments will still get a say in developing their own additional regulations, such as bans on indoor smoking.

The measure is far from final. After a 60-day comment period the MCB will consider amendments, and then vote on whether or not to adopt the final framework, according to Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office Director Erika McConnell.

One industry advocate called the 3-to-2 decision “bittersweet.” Jana Weltzin is a lawyer representing cannabis businesses across the state, and while she believes the provisions the MCB approved are workable, the public process time-line means Alaska might not see firm regulations for on-site consumption until next spring.

“We won’t really know what these things are going to look like until they actually get formed and they’re operating,” Weltzin said Tuesday evening by phone. She hopes public comments submitted to the MCB are supportive, which would eliminate the need for substantive revisions that would put the proposal back out for more public comments.

“Let’s just accept them,” Weltzin said of the draft regulations. “And then we can fix it down the road.”

On-site consumption has been a vexing issue for local governments in Alaska, particularly areas with lots of tourism. Rules against public consumption have essentially made it legal to buy cannabis but not legal to use outside of private residences. Last week, the Anchorage Assembly passed a resolution supporting state regulations for on-site consumption, citing customers and tourists with nowhere to go.

Though a growing number of states have set up or are in the process of implementing recreational cannabis industries, none have set up a system for allowing on-site consumption inside businesses or Amsterdam-style pot cafes.