Alaska News

As Alaska marijuana legalization nears, concern arises over possible delay in sales rules

As Alaska prepares for marijuana legalization, there are plenty of unknowns about what implementation will look like. But for supporters of Ballot Measure 2, one thing is clear: A strict timeline was built into the voter-passed initiative to guide rule makers and citizens through the legalization process.

Starting Feb. 24, personal possession and use of recreational marijuana will be legal in Alaska. That date also starts the clock on a nine-month countdown for the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to begin crafting marijuana regulations.

But that date also starts a two-year countdown to Feb. 24, 2017, when the Legislature can, under the Alaska constitution, repeal the entire law.

Among the law's supporters, there is quiet concern that legislators and other public officials will attempt to extend the rule-making schedule, in effect slowing the process and potentially stopping implementation.

"There is the fear that the more schedule slips, the more it plays into the goals of the prohibitionists who want to see it shut down," said Bruce Schulte, spokesman for the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, a group that represents the state's pot industry.

If businesses can't be up and running before the two-year mark, it will be easier for lawmakers to invalidate the initiative, which passed 53 to 47 percent in the November election.

"There may even be a few legislators who want to (slow it down)," Schulte said, "but we've made it clear: Any deliberate or overt attempt to do that just looks bad. It just looks like an effort to subvert the will of the voters, and we don't think very many legislators are really of that mindset."

But Jeff Jessee, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, doesn't quite see it that way. He contends that voters in Alaska might not have realized when they voted that they were authorizing full-scale marijuana commercialization.

In a Senate State Affairs Committee meeting last week, Jessee warned that nine months might not be enough time to complete the rule-making process. He suggested that timeline was set up in an effort to enshrine legalization.

"Why have (supporters of Ballot Measure 2) insisted on nine months?" Jessee told the committee last week. "They know what we know, that if they get licensed and into operation before you can sort things out here, you can't put the genie back in the bottle."

In a followup interview, Jessee said what's spelled out in Ballot Measure 2 constitutes the extreme in ending marijuana prohibition. He thinks that voters, if given another choice, would have suggested a more modest approach than creating a commercial industry.

Jessee's suggestion is slower implementation. If the regulations aren't up to par in two years, he says, it's fully within the constitutional right of the Legislature to consider repeal.

"I assume (the repeal option) is a check-and-balance on the people," Jessee said. "Now people might not like that, but I presume that's why it's there, is that the people may not get it right every time."

Implementation on time

In an interview Friday, initiative co-sponsor Tim Hinterberger said it was slightly surreal to see marijuana being taken seriously by the Legislature after years of back-and-forth between voters and lawmakers.

"We've come a long way," he said.

He also noted that both Colorado and Washington state have come a long way too. In 2012, voters in both states approved referendums legalizing marijuana and allowing recreational sales to start in 2014.

Colorado had a similar timeline for drafting its regulations.

Hinterberger said that during drafting of Alaska's ballot measure, nine months after vote certification seemed a "reasonable amount of time," especially given experiences from Colorado and Washington.

"I can't say there was any carefully reasoned analysis that led to those numbers," Hinterberger said. "From the distant-future point we were considering this, it seemed like plenty of time."

He still thinks it will be plenty of time. Hinterberger suspects that the Legislature appears to be in a rush to get some legislation passed before Feb. 24 in an effort to clarify the criminal and regulatory rules, but after that, things will occur at a more "relaxed pace."

For the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, there's no question it can complete the rules as set out by the initiative. In days following the passage of Ballot Measure 2, ABC Board Director Cynthia Franklin said it could be done. It's a position the board has expressed to both the governor and the public.

"We've staked our position in that we can do it," she said again Monday.

Franklin said her biggest concern for the agency is costs. Currently the agency employs 10 people to regulate 1,800-plus alcohol permits.

"We can't regulate the two substances with the same number of people and the same bare-bones budget," she said. "We just can't."

Franklin said her staff has already been spending extra time working on marijuana, costs that are pushing the agency's budget into the red.

That's another issue that needs to be addressed, she said. Still, she said, the agency will be able to hit the timeline.

"When you step back and really look at it from the long view, essentially what you're saying is if you can't do it, is that we, as a government agency, given two years from Nov. 4, 2014, to February 2017, can't get anything done in that time frame," Franklin said. "I just don't think that's true."

Even Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, doesn't see slowing the timeline as a possibility. In an interview last month, she said the Legislature should be careful not to "over-legislate," but that there's still plenty of work to be done filling gaps in the initiative. As the chair of the House Judiciary Committee who will likely touch all bills related to marijuana legalization, she said, her intent is to see that legislation moves quickly and smoothly.

"My intention is not to slow it down," she said. "The initiative spoke clearly on it, and my intention is to honor the will of the people."

Alaska’s road to marijuana legalization

• Nov. 4, 2014: Voters statewide approve Ballot Measure 2, 53 percent to 47 percent.

• Nov. 24, 2014: Vote certified by Division of Elections, begins the 90 day countdown until the measure goes in to effect.

• Jan. 20, 2015: Alaska Legislature gavels in. Two bills related to marijuana are pre-filed leading up to the opening day of session, with more expected.

• Feb. 24, 2015: Ballot Measure 2 becomes law. Personal-possession portions of the measure are effective immediately. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, unless another board is created by the legislature, can begin crafting marijuana regulations. Under the initiative, the board has nine months to complete them.

• April 19, 2015: Legislature scheduled to adjourn. Legislation will likely impact the creation of marijuana rules.

• Nov. 24, 2015: Deadline for the board to adopt marijuana regulations. If not adopted by this date, local governments have the option of establishing their own rules. The final regulations package will be submitted to the governor's office and Department of Law for review and approval.

• Feb. 24, 2016: Board must start accepting applications for marijuana businesses and must act on them within 90 days. If the board has not adopted regulations, applications may be submitted directly to local regulatory authorities.

• March 26, 2016: Tentative effective date of regulations; effective date will be 30 days after the Lt. Governor's Office files the approved regulations.

• May 24, 2016: Initial marijuana industry licenses expected to be awarded. Marijuana businesses will be able to legally begin operations.

• Feb. 24, 2017: Per Alaska's constitution, the state legislature can repeal the ballot measure.

Sources: ABC Board Marijuana FAQ, Ballot Measure 2, Tribune Media Services

Suzanna Caldwell

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