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'Critical' bill creating Marijuana Control Board makes little progress in Juneau

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 7, 2015

The public has kept a watchful eye on the marijuana crime bill circulating in Alaska's Legislature, but regulators and industry supporters say another piece of legislation in the works is far more important to the creation of a regulated marijuana industry.

Currently in the House Judiciary Committee, House Bill 123 would create a Marijuana Control Board tasked with crafting regulations and ensuring that marijuana businesses work within those laws.

The bill also contains an essential aspect of regulating the burgeoning industry: money.

Tucked inside the bill is a fiscal note to the tune of $1.57 million. The funding would allow for the expansion of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board's staff and resources, as the Marijuana Control Board would share the ABC Board's staff and director.

To forgo additional funding would be in essence a "de facto repeal" of the initiative, ABC Board director Cynthia Franklin said.

Without funding, the ABC Board would be faced with an "unfunded mandate," unable to do the job demanded by the voters, Franklin said. Such a scenario could lead to lawsuits.

Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation spokesman Bruce Schulte said industry supporters were "going to make sure (legislators) are aware of how critical" the bill is, and that some people "may not appreciate the implication of funding that board."

Franklin and Schulte agreed that the bill is the most important marijuana-related legislation this session.

'Full faith'

When Alaska's marijuana initiative went into effect on Feb. 24, it gave the Legislature the power to create a Marijuana Control Board. If no board is created, it's up to the ABC Board to create the regulations. Either way, the board would still need additional funding to regulate a new substance, Franklin said.

Initially, Gov. Bill Walker requested additional funding in the operating budget, but a finance subcommittee requested that money be sought in a separate bill. Walker introduced HB 123 on Feb. 23.

A Marijuana Control Board would be composed of five volunteer members who would share the staff and director of the ABC Board. Board members would serve three-year terms.

"We have full faith that it is the intent of the Legislature to allocate some money," said Micaela Fowler, legislative liaison for the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Fowler said it is "very important" that the money be allocated.

According to Fowler, additional funding would cover new expenses such as enforcement officers, setting up a computer database and the costs of more licensing staff.

HB 123 would also give the board power to shut down businesses operating illegally. On Monday, Franklin spoke of the necessity of enforcement and told legislators that three businesses in the state were already operating without licenses.

"I guess we'd call it the Charlo clause," joked Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, referencing Anchorage reporter-turned-marijuana-club-owner Charlo Greene.

Slow progress

The bill has slowly been making its way through the House. It was taken up by the House Labor and Commerce Committee in early March and was passed to the Judiciary Committee on March 30.

On Monday, the bill was held in the House Judiciary Committee after about an hour of discussion.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux said that she had intended to pass the bill through during Monday's meeting. Citing lingering questions on some of the bill's language, she held it over to the next committee meeting.

When asked about the bill's trajectory through the Legislature, LeDoux replied that she was "just taking it one step at a time. I think that we'll be able to get it out of my committee." She declined to speculate on whether the bill would pass through other committees or the full House.

With 12 days left in this year's session, the bill still needs to pass through the House Finance Committee before a vote on the House floor and would then head over to the Senate. And as the session comes to a close, "things are going to get more jammed up" in the Finance Committee, LeDoux said.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, expressed pessimism on the bill's progress. "On the Senate side, it really feels like the air has been let out on the (marijuana) issue," he said.

"The collective will on marijuana is just not there," Wielechowski said.

HB 123 will likely be discussed in the House Judiciary Committee again later in the week, LeDoux said.

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