Alaska News

Leaders debate whether to put marijuana under ABC Board jurisdiction

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has been busy since Alaskans voted to legalize marijuana in November. Members have been inundated with questions, moving swiftly to provide information to the public and working to inform themselves in order to begin crafting marijuana rules when the ballot initiative goes into effect in February.

But what kind of work they'll actually have to do remains unclear if a bill pending from Sen. Lesil McGuire goes through.

McGuire said Thursday she intends to introduce legislation that would create a marijuana control board charged with crafting and implementing marijuana rules. McGuire, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to make it clear that the Legislature will be addressing marijuana legalization. With that, she feels the first step is creating a separate board to regulate the substance.

The authority to do that is one of the few clear requests Ballot Measure 2 specifically makes of the Legislature. However, it only indicates that it "may create" the board -- not that it must. Per the initiative, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is in charge of marijuana unless a new organization is formed. With the board moving swiftly, some involved in marijuana legalization find themselves mulling whether a separate board should exist.

Taylor Bickford said the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska is still analyzing the pros and cons of whether to create a marijuana control board. Jeff Jessee, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and a volunteer with the group opposing Ballot Measure 2, said he has no stance either way on whether the ABC Board or a newly created board should handle marijuana rules.

Bruce Schulte said the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, a group formed to offer insights into the rulemaking process, initially wanted to see a separate control board but has adjusted that outlook based on the interest he's seen so far from ABC Board Director Cynthia Franklin. Schulte said Franklin, a former municipal prosecutor, appears well suited to handle the regulatory process.

Schulte said one of the coalition's biggest concerns is ensuring that the board is made up of individuals supportive of the marijuana industry, whether that's a separate board or an ABC Board with additional members who have marijuana experience.


"We just want to see a board that is neutral with regards to marijuana, that is interested in having it succeed and composed of people of the appropriate background to make that happen," Schulte said.

Jessee said he wants to make sure the industry doesn't have too much influence on whatever board exists. He noted that current changes being considered for the ABC Board's composition limit the number of industry seats that can be on the board. He would like to a see similar makeup if a marijuana control board is created.

Franklin has no position on whether her agency or another remains in control of marijuana but she did say that there are "pros and cons" to both. She noted that other states with legalized marijuana have taken different approaches: Colorado has two separate agencies, while Washington state's Liquor Control Board handles both marijuana and alcohol.

Pros for keeping it at the ABC Board include an early start. Her agency has already begun working on marijuana, an important factor since the initiative gives the entity nine months to craft marijuana rules. If a new board has to take over, it will take time to get them staffed and up to speed.

"There's no way they'll hit those deadlines," Franklin said.

Another pro is that the board already has experience in regulating a controlled substance. She worries that a new board, which might not have that experience, would be like "the blind leading the blind leading the blind."

Cons include potential conflicts of interests with members of the ABC Board, especially business members.

"Theoretically, those industries could be competing industries," Franklin said. "They might be competing for the same 'altered state' dollars."

Another con? It costs approximately $1.7 million a year to operate the ABC Board. Franklin said those costs would likely be "mirrored" by a marijuana control board.

McGuire understands those concerns. She noted that tax revenue will likely offset those costs but with no clear estimates, it's still a question how much revenue the state will earn. It will also be at least a year before revenue is collected -- the first business licenses won't be issued until 2016.

McGuire said the two substances are "distinctly different" with very different issues to consider. She said she hasn't talked to a colleague in the Legislature who is not interested in having a marijuana control board.

"(Alcohol and marijuana) are not the same the drug; they don't have the same considerations. I believe it is an absolute conflict of interest to put them together," McGuire said. "It's like asking the ABC Board to regulate prescription drugs.

"That's not their expertise, it's not their background. Certainly they can travel and go to school and learn about it but they need to get up every day and think about alcohol, and they've got their work cut out for them on that."

Suzanna Caldwell

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