Alaska News

Marijuana transportation issues up in the air following legalization vote

Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 2 on Nov. 4, effectively legalizing recreational marijuana in Alaska. But even though the law is still months from taking effect, there are big questions about what exactly will be legal.

One of the major issues to be resolved is transportation of marijuana via air and water to the many Alaska communities that are off the main road system. With federal law governing much of that travel, the legality of transporting small amounts of marijuana that way is in question.

"It all depends on what the law says," said John Parrott, airport manager at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Parrott was referring to the state laws and regulations that will govern marijuana enforcement. The state won't begin crafting those laws until February, when the initiative goes into effect. From there, the state has nine months to come up with rules.

The Transportation Security Administration is in charge of airport security. A spokesman said that if during security screening an officer discovers something that may violate the law, including marijuana, TSA refers the matter to law enforcement. Law enforcement officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation.

Under federal law, it is illegal to possess and transport marijuana. However, federal prosecutors have indicated they will not pursue charges for minor marijuana-related crimes in states with legal marijuana.

Parrott said that for small regional air carriers that do not use TSA screening, airport police often help intercept alcoholic beverages that could be shipped to dry communities. He said the airport could potentially do the same with marijuana.

"There are more questions than answers at this point," Parrott said Thursday.

The same seems to apply to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

"Future enforcement and transportation of marijuana on state ferries is still uncertain," Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesman Jeremy Woodrow wrote in an email. "(The department) will be working closely with the Department of Law over the next year to update policy, if necessary."

Currently, marijuana is illegal on all ferries. Woodrow said crews have no formal system for dealing with people who bring marijuana on board. However, if a passenger is suspected of having it, staff will alert local authorities at the next port of call.

It's also unclear how the new law will affect people bringing marijuana onto Alaska vessels docked in Bellingham, Washington. It's illegal to possess marijuana on a ferry docked in Washington, because the ferry is technically Alaska state property.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which monitors all navigable waterways (including nearly every body of water in Alaska), said it would continue to enforce federal laws prohibiting marijuana.

Spokesman Kip Wadlow said the kind of enforcement could vary depending on the amount of marijuana and the situation. Actions could include seizing the marijuana or taking the owner into custody.

Wadlow also emphasized concerns about increased incidents of people boating under the influence of marijuana, which is currently -- and will remain -- illegal.

"If people are using marijuana and out there operating a vessel, they are operating impaired and boating under the influence, we can take that person into custody," he said Thursday.

"If you are out on the water, the Coast Guard wants people boating sober."

Suzanna Caldwell

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