It's still unknown what sort of regulations will come out of the marijuana rulemaking process, but the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation wants to help shape them.
"The best thing is to keep the rules as broad as possible and let the market decide who makes it or who fails," said Bruce Schulte, a marijuana advocate and public relations chair of the organization.
The group, made up of about half a dozen people with interest in starting marijuana businesses, wants to make sure business voices are represented when it comes to establishing rules for Alaska marijuana sales. Not technically lobbyists, but more organized than the average group of citizens, the group hopes to bring a professional voice to the conversation about how to craft marijuana rules in Alaska.
The idea isn't to make the process more difficult, but to provide guidance when it comes to making laws that won't stifle potential marijuana businesses, according to coalition chair Frank Berardi.
"We want this transition to be as smooth as possible," he said.
The members of the group are based in both Anchorage and Fairbanks. The group advocated in favor of the ballot measure, even registering as a group with the Alaska Public Offices Commission; however, their involvement was low-key. Overall, they contributed about $4,200 to advocate for the campaign.
Schulte said if the measure had failed the group would have disbanded, but with the measure passing, "now the real work begins."
Colorado and Washington both had dispensaries in place when legalization passed in 2012, but Alaska has none. Even though medical marijuana passed in Alaska in 1998, the state never set up a system for legally buying or selling the substance. Ballot Measure 2, an initiative passed by voters in early November, sets up a framework for legalizing, taxing and selling recreational marijuana in Alaska.
When the law goes into effect in February, personal possession of recreational marijuana will be legal. However, the state has an additional nine months to draft rules allowing marijuana sales. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, or possibly a new marijuana control board if one is created by the Legislature, is in charge of crafting regulations allowing those businesses to open.
The ABC board isn't expected to begin accepting license applications until February 2016. Until then, the board will craft regulations that work with the laws laid out in the initiative -- which, according to drafters, were intentionally left unspecific, to allow state to craft Alaska-appropriate rules -- and filling in blanks not addressed by the Legislature this session.
Included in that rule drafting is public comment. That's part of where the coalition will come in. They want to make sure people who have studied the marijuana business are represented in the rulemaking process. Schulte said much like the ABC Board, which has members who work in the alcohol industry, similar business interests should be represented in the marijuana rulemaking process.
"At some point, people in the room will need that perspective," Schulte said. "So why not let them into that room in the first place?"
Berardi said the marijuana rules will likely be based on the successes and failures of marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado, with a "uniquely Alaskan twist," he said.
Schulte said he believes the ABC Board should craft those regulations with public safety in mind, but that when it comes to business the market should be the deciding factor. For example, he said, things like limiting the number of businesses in certain places, like in Washington state, serves as an "artificial throttle" in limiting businesses, and the coalition would oppose such a measure.
He also said practices like giving out business licenses via lottery, like in Washington, is a misguided approach. People can't plan for that, he said, leading to a mish-mash of businesses. Instead, he thinks businesses that apply for marijuana licenses should have equal weight before the ABC Board.
The cost of entry shouldn't be too high, either, he said, pointing out that the extreme cost of obtaining a liquor license (which can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars) wouldn't be practical for the fledgling marijuana industry.
Beyond making it easier to go into business, Berardi's organization believes the more "reasonable" the regulations, the easier it will be for the black market to legitimize. One of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol's biggest arguments was that legalization would drive the black market out of the underground. Schulte acknowledged that wouldn't happen overnight, but that reasonable regulations could expedite the process.
"If you make it attractive, easy and practical to make that transition, most of them will," Schulte said.
Berardi isn't sure what the lifespan of the group will be. Expect a marijuana industry association to form once businesses begin to open, after which Berardi said his role as chair would likely "go away" as members of the group transition into the industry.
Berardi acknowledged that there might be criticism surrounding the group's business interests, but he noted that having that business experience makes sense.
He said he couldn't think of another industry that's regulated by people opposed to its existence.
"We expect those criticisms to come about, but when forming an industry, those interests should play a part," Berardi said. "We're all responsible people who care about our neighbors and want them to be comfortable with business in those communities."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing