Alaska News

Police chiefs oppose marijuana measure, though some peers dissent

As both sides of the campaign fight to find support for or against marijuana legalization, one group has remained steadfast in their opposition: Alaska police chiefs.

Ten police chiefs met Wednesday in Anchorage to emphasize something voters have been hearing for months: that the heads of Alaska police departments are firmly against Ballot Measure 2, an initiative that would legalize and tax marijuana for those 21 and over in Alaska.

The chiefs are from a broad swath of the state, from rural villages to Alaska's largest city. At a press conference Wednesday, the chiefs reiterated their own concerns as well as those from the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police. That organization, which represents about 150 chiefs and commanders across Alaska, released a survey in June saying that local law enforcement could see up to $6 million in increased costs should Ballot Measure 2 pass. They also released a 14-point reasoning earlier this summer arguing why Alaskans should not support legalizing recreational marijuana.

Those points were reiterated Wednesday by the chiefs assembled. The timing was convenient, according to the association's executive director, Kalie Klaysmat. She said many were in town for an emergency preparedness conference held biannually in downtown Anchorage.

Nome Police Chief John Papasodora worried about the implications of the measure in Western Alaska, where substance abuse issues factor into a majority of arrests they deal with.

"We already have the highest arrest rates of any Alaska community," Papasodora said. "I can see that increasing (if Ballot Measure 2 passes)."

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew noted the disconnect between state and federal law and the impacts that would have on officers, a point he emphasized earlier in the year. He worried about the position in which that would place his officers.

"(This initiative) increases all kinds of ambiguity," he said.

Mew also had concerns that revenue would not go directly to the police force. He cited other examples -- including alcohol and tobacco taxes -- that have not consistently gone to public safety and prevention needs.

While the initiative would tax marijuana at $50 per ounce at the wholesale level, it does not -- and cannot -- say where that appropriation would go. Only the state Legislature can allocate tax revenues. In Colorado and Washington, those funds have gone toward prevention programs, education and public safety.

Many of the chiefs represent law enforcement in rural communities like Kotzebue, Nome and Unalaska. They noted that their small police forces are already strained, and that marijuana would increase burdens (and overtime costs) on their departments.

Valdez Police Chief Bill Comer added that regardless of the revenue, there are larger concerns about the sheer human impact if legalization comes to pass.

"How can revenue compensate victims from tragedies with this law?" Comer asked. "There is no compensation."

Others in law enforcement disagree

Norm Stamper, who was the Seattle chief of police from 1994 to 2000 and is now retired from law enforcement, said he understood the concerns of the Alaska police, but thought many of those concerns were unfounded.

Stamper now works for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit organization made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who favor marijuana legalization. Stamper will be in Alaska in late October to campaign in favor of legalization.

"Prohibition is responsible for far more crime, greater levels of violence and police resources than any kind of good that comes from those laws," he said.

Stamper doesn't believe legalization leads to the increased costs the Alaska chiefs cited. He noted that Seattle hasn't seen tremendous increases since legalization occurred. He was critical about concerns over increased training costs, since marijuana is already being used in Alaska communities.

"Given marijuana is currently banned for adults as well as young people, and currently they are making arrests, why would they have to provide more training?" Stamper asked. "Apparently they aren't providing it now, and it raises a question about responsibility."

Bill Parker, former Alaska Department of Corrections deputy commissioner and co-sponsor of the initiative, was sharply critical of the police chiefs' concerns. He said issues about marijuana laws in Alaska and enforcement were one of the reasons they drafted an initiative in the first place.

He said police are already in charge of enforcing Alaska drug laws -- which he said are not working. Parker said law enforcement campaigning against the reform of those laws is just making everything more difficult.

"We're standing in our own way there; we're not looking at solutions," Parker said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I see this as piling on uniforms and badges before they think it all the way through. I think the peace of Alaska would be easier to keep without this crazy war on marijuana."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.