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Newest version of Alaska marijuana crime bill draws opposition

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 11, 2015

Legislators on Wednesday heard public testimony about the newest version of a bill that deals with the criminal aspects of marijuana law in Alaska.

Introduced Monday in the Senate Finance Committee, the new version of SB 30 reinstates marijuana as a controlled substance. Among other changes to the bill, some crimes could be prosecuted as felonies, and an open container is broadly defined.

The bill had passed from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which drafted a bill that removed marijuana from the list of controlled substances.

Judiciary committee member Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, expressed frustration Wednesday regarding the bill's changes in the finance committee.

"In the Senate Judiciary Committee there was a real collaborative process," Wielechowski said, which garnered support for the bill that was passed along to the finance committee.

In the committee, "from what I've heard, there was not a lot of consultation with the stakeholder groups," Wielechowski said.

Responding to this criticism, Senate Finance co-chair Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, said, "This is the people's bill and so I'm not sure how it was handled in Judiciary. ... We try to work with everybody."

MacKinnon said the committee did not meet with advocacy groups such as the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska. The opportunity to provide input is "still available to them," MacKinnon said.

Public testimony regarding the bill was overwhelmingly negative. Anchorage resident Fay Herald was one of dozens who testified during the 2.5-hour hearing. She said she was disappointed in the current version, specifically because it would make it a felony to have 1 pound of marijuana in one's home.

Home-growers "certainly don't want to be considered felons because we harvested too much," Herald said.

"That's certainly not our intent," MacKinnon said after the hearing.

"Everyone understands that Alaskans have the right to have, to hold, to cultivate" marijuana, MacKinnon said.

Criminal penalties

Any conduct outlined in Alaska's initiative would be legal. Marijuana-related conduct outside those boundaries would remain a crime.

-- It would be a felony to possess 1 pound or more, possess 25 plants or more, or give marijuana to someone under 21 years old twice in five years.

-- A class A misdemeanor would be: transporting more than 1 ounce or six plants, possessing less than 16 but more than 3 ounces, delivering pot to someone under 21 years old, delivering marijuana for payment, or manufacturing marijuana concentrate using a "volatile or explosive gas."

-- Possession of 2-3 ounces, 7-11 plants, or transporting more than 1 ounce would be a class B misdemeanor.

-- It would be a violation to possess between 1 and 2 ounces of marijuana, consume pot in public, grow in public view or on someone's property without consent, consume while operating a vehicle, or as a minor, possess less than 2 ounces.

MacKinnon asked the public specifically to weigh in on the "policy call" of making possession of 16 ounces, or 1 pound, of marijuana a felony.

She said after the hearing that the decision to make 16 ounces a felony was to draw a line for law enforcement in determining who's selling pot illegally.

"Somewhere there has to be a bite" in the law, MacKinnon said, that deters black market dealers.

Controlled substance

The bill would also reinstate marijuana as a controlled substance.

"We had testimony from state agencies (that suggested) there were some fatal flaws with removing it from controlled substances," MacKinnon said of the change. The Alaska Court System, Alaska State Troopers, and Public Defender Agency all testified that removing it would be problematic, MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon said that when one section of statute was changed to provide clarity, another section would become muddled.

No other state that has legalized recreational marijuana has removed its controlled substance status, MacKinnon said.

She said the intent of retaining it as a controlled substance is partially due to federal law. She wants Alaska to "use the structure that the federal government has made for other states."

Another reason to maintain it as a controlled substance is to ensure Alaskans understand that it is still illegal on the federal level. "No matter what Alaska does, it's going to be a controlled substance," MacKinnon said.

Additionally, the initiative did not require the removal of marijuana from the controlled substances list, MacKinnon said during the hearing.

Wielechowski called placing marijuana back on the controlled substances list a "slippery slope of philosophy," saying that if marijuana is viewed as a controlled substance, and thus a dangerous substance, then legislation is crafted with a different mindset. That's why felonies have shown up in the bill, Wielechowski said.

"People can say it's just a philosophical debate … but you're seeing real policy ramifications," Wielechowski said.

The finance committee is holding hearings on the bill every day this week.

Alaska's initiative legalizing recreational marijuana use went into effect on Feb. 24.

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