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Unalaskans Pack City Hall To Ponder Pot Stores

Greta Mart

Dozens of residents came to City Hall this week to express their views on commercial marijuana sales on the island. For two hours straight Monday night, Unalaskans spoke their minds. They listened respectfully as their neighbor or coworker did the same. 

Many said they are against allowing a store to open here. 15 people urged the city council to "opt out," or pass a local law to prevent a retail marijuana store from opening.

"When Proposition 2 was voted into law, I understand that individual municipalities were left with the right to opt out of participation in such commercial establishments. And I strongly recommend that the city of Unalaska do so," Lisa McConnell said. "Not all that is permissible is beneficial. And I'd like to encourage you, as my representatives, to exercise our community's right to opt out."  

An equal number of residents said they were in favor of commercialization. Another 15 people spoke of their strong support for retail marijuana sales in Unalaska and encouraged the city council not to stand in the way.

"This is a hard topic. And I think what's making hard is because there's so many people's feelings in here, that are saying why should have marijuana or why we shouldn't. Well, that right there is not the topic," said a woman who did not identify herself. "The topic is marijuana is already legal. The topic is commercialization of marijuana, regulation in Unalaska. Do I feel it should be? Yes! The reason why is because I don't want it in the drug dealer's hands."

The crowd filled council chambers until almost every seat was taken at the start of the meeting. A handful of people stood the entire two hours at the back of the room. Mayor Shirley Marquardt served as facilitator, bringing the mic to any one who wished to speak.

Some of the 30-plus speakers said just a few words about their stance on the topic; others read lengthy prepared statements. Opinions often expanded to include philosophical, moral, medicinal and sociological aspects of the plant.

Some questioned how a marijuana store would impact the commercial fishing industry, on which the community is so dependent. A commercial fisherman said allowing a pot shop would lead to widespread failings of pre-employment or on-the-job drug tests. Despite the legality of recreational marijuana use in Alaska, he said, seafood harvesting and processing companies continue to consider marijuana an illegal and prohibited drug. 

"You're going to have more crime in the community," Phyllis Whittern said. "You're going to have industry that has a huge problem that was mentioned early on, with people who lose their jobs and then are left in this community because they don't have a way out. How is it going to impact the businesses? We own a business. Having employees smoking at lunchtime. Or whatever. What are going to be the regulations?"

Several speakers prefaced their comments by saying they had not intended to speak at the public forum, but were moved to do so by what they hear from others.

"As an elder of the community - I've been here for many, many years - I want to stand up and say, I believe in commercializing marijuana," Glenda Dupuy said. "Commercializing the sales of it, in a controlled - completely controlled environment, just like we do with our alcohol stores."

"If we don’t allow commercial marijuana in Unalaska then we need to get rid of every liquor store and bar in this town," said Disney Williams. "Otherwise we’d be hypocrites, especially if it’s under the guise of 'saving the children.'"

Many who spoke against marijuana commercialization said they didn't want to make it easier for children to gain access to the drug.

"A primary concern that I have is that the recreational use of marijuana and its promoters seem to be targeting children just like the cigarette companies used to do," Albert Burnham said. "There is clearly a movement to make marijuana use hip and cool. And products are being released like marijuana lollipops, that seem geared towards piquing the interest of young children."

According to city staff, "On the commercial side, a local government may prohibit the operation of any marijuana cultivation facilities, marijuana product manufacturing facilities, marijuana testing facilities, or retail marijuana stores or may enact ordinances or regulations to limit the total number of businesses, their hours of operation and other details of marijuana businesses such as the type of marijuana products available for sale."

If the city council decides not to pass any local laws prohibiting the production and/or sale of commercial marijuana in Unalaska, a retail shop could open as soon as mid-to-late May. Even with the city's blessing, starting up a retail operation on the island remains a formidable logistical and economical challenge.

The state's marijuana board must start accepting applications for business licenses on Feb. 23rd. 

Two attendees at Monday's night's forum vowed that if the council does vote to ban pot shops, residents will make sure to get enough signatures to put the question on a ballot and let the voters decide the issue.

A few speakers in favor of commercialization said they represented others who didn't want to appear in public to express their views. To that, the mayor said anyone was welcome to visit the city's website to fill out an online survey.

Monday night's session was a public hearing, and the city council took no action. It is expected the topic will be revisited at the Jan. 12 council meeting.

Greta Mart worked for KUCB in 2015 and 2016.
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