Marijuana town halls spark debate over use
The discussion over marijuana regulation in Utqiaġvik is in the spotlight following a series of town hall meetings this month.
The town hall meetings, which were publicized on the city's Facebook page, focused on the establishment of a marijuana regulatory authority, but sparked a number of broad debates over the positive and negative aspects of marijuana use in the region.
They are leading up to the city council's regular meeting on Dec. 21, at which the body will consider Ordinance 18-2017, and take public testimony from the community.
That ordinance would create a new chapter in the city code establishing a local regulatory authority. That body, which could be the city council itself, would be responsible for processing applications from people wishing to open and operate a marijuana dispensary in the city, and "otherwise regulating the operation of marijuana establishments, marijuana and marijuana products within the city." Mayor Fannie Suvlu could not be contacted for comment by deadline to discuss some of the specifics of the ordinance.
Adopting the ordinance does not mean a marijuana dispensary will open in town, nor does it mean the council supports the opening of a dispensary. It would designate a group of people whose job it would be to oversee that process, should it come up in the future.
"The ordinance that they were going to introduce had to do with the policy and procedures, and I questioned it why was a policy and procedure being put in place even before (there was) a petition to legalize a marijuana dispensary here in Utqiaġvik," said local resident Charlotte Brower, who is also the former mayor of the North Slope Borough. She attended the first town hall. "Not quite a good answer, but that they needed to have an implementation plan in the event that a petition comes through. So, it was sort of confusing at first."
For the past few years, similar ordinances have arisen in the council, under different leadership, looking into the topic. Each time they come up, the discussions around them tend to take a number of heated turns, as did discussions over alcohol distribution in years past.
Just as local voters across the Arctic have had to opt to have or not have liquor distribution centers in their communities, Utqiaġvik voters could find themselves making a similar decision, for or against a marijuana distribution center, should one be proposed down the line.
In some ways, it's both the similarities and differences between alcohol and marijuana that have fueled the debates among residents for many years.
Facebook has been teeming with posts since the town halls began, both supporting and denouncing marijuana use in the region.
Supporters have been slightly less vocal in recent weeks, and have often focused their attention on what they consider the potentially positive effect of locally controlled distribution.
Some have said having local oversight would mean consumers would not have to buy on the black market, and open themselves up to the dangers of illicit use. If marijuana is sold in a store, it's supposed to be controlled, tested and up to safety standards. Black market products can be laced with other substances, which can have dangerous consequences for users.
Others have noted that a marijuana dispensary, if managed by the city itself, could bring profits into the community, rather than leaving them in the hands of illegal sellers.
A handful of users have extolled the medicinal properties of marijuana, as well, while others have noted that alcohol seems to have an even more detrimental effect on users, yet is not taken as seriously as pot.
The majority of public discussions on marijuana use have centered around people who are opposed to the idea of a local dispensary, however, saying it would condone a practice that should be viewed as negative.
"This ... also affects our schools, our children, our Elders, our family values. It just goes core against everything. We don't want to see our community divided again on any matter, because we've seen that happen and a very few is going to benefit from it," said Brower, who has spoken out against the idea.
With alcohol already perceived as wreaking havoc on many North Slope communities, many residents fear yet another substance coming in so publicly, though they acknowledge there are many current users, even without a distribution center.
While these types of opinions have been the focus of conversation over the last several days, councilmembers have stressed that the ordinance up for consideration and public hearing this week deals with a much narrower component of the whole marijuana debate: just the creation of a regulatory body.
The city council's regular meeting is scheduled for Dec. 21 at 7 p.m. in city council chambers.