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With Alaska voters signing off on legal pot, road to regulation begins

Alaska voters on Tuesday might have been the fourth state in the nation to approve recreational marijuana legalization, but residents will still have to wait before being able to use legally.

Alaska followed Oregon and Washington D.C. in passing initiatives on Election Day legalizing recreational marijuana. Championed by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, the newly passed Ballot Measure 2 will tax and regulate the substance in a manner similar to alcohol, allowing sales to only those 21 years of age and older. It will tax the substance at $50 per ounce wholesale. Washington state and Colorado both passed similar legalization measures in 2012.

When will people be able to legally possess and transport marijuana? Likely at the end of February, according to Cynthia Franklin, director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Initiatives do not become law until 90 days after the election is certified, which is tentatively set to happen Nov. 28, Franklin said.

But, Franklin warned, "Until that 90-day window has passed, those criminal statutes are still full force in effect."

Once the initiative becomes law, personal use of marijuana by adults 21 and older will be legal. People will be able to possess and transport up to 1 ounce of marijuana, and grow or transport up to six marijuana plants, three of which can be flowering at one time. People can give each other up to 1 ounce of marijuana, or six immature plants. Smoking in public will be banned, however, and subject to a $100 citation.

What agency will craft the specific regulations remains to be seen. The Legislature has the option to create the Marijuana Control Board, which would be housed under the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

Even if a Marijuana Control Board is implemented, the ABC Board will still have "valuable insight" into the regulation process, Franklin said.

And don't expect to see marijuana businesses right away. The board will have nine months to craft regulations surrounding marijuana establishments. Those regulations will likely be in place in November 2015. The board will then begin accepting business applications in February 2016, and begin issuing business licenses no later than May 2016.

"We're starting from the ground up, basically," said ABC Board member Ellen Ganley.

Alaska can learn from both Colorado and Washington's rollout, Ganley said, and she anticipates tweaks to the regulations in the first few years as Alaska's system gets up and running.

Making the rules

For now, the ABC Board is waiting for the final votes to be counted and the election to be certified, Franklin said. After that, the agency will draft a timeline for the rulemaking process.

"The process for creating regulations is a statewide process, it's a standardized process," Franklin said. "That means that there will be public notification and a public comment period," and proposed regulations will be posted online.

Regardless of what entity is crafting the regulations, it will be under "intense scrutiny" from the 48 percent of voters who did not approve the measure, Franklin said.

"I expect it to be a pretty lively process," Franklin said. "I think it will be transparent, and the public will certainly have the opportunity to provide input."

Both Franklin and Ganley agreed that the ABC Board would need more staff to tackle a whole new industry.

"Certainly we'd anticipate if the work remains under the ABC Board there will be additional personnel and staffing needs," Franklin said.

Both, though, are confident in the ABC Board's ability to meet the deadlines outlined in the initiative.

"It's just going to be a huge challenge, I think, but a very interesting challenge … it's gonna be fun," Ganley said.

Emerging interests

During a national conference call with the Drug Policy Alliance Wednesday morning, campaign spokesman Taylor Bickford said with the measure approved, marijuana legalization advocates will now begin the process of figuring out how exactly Alaska will deal with the now-legal substance.

"The advantage we all have of legalizing in 2014 is that we can draw from the successes in both Washington and Colorado to build regulatory structures that work for our states," Bickford said. "A lot of what's happening can be replicated."

Whether the Alaska campaign will still be involved with that process is yet to be determined, according to Bickford.

"We will have some role, but we're not sure what that will look like," he said.

A spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, the primary backer of Ballot Measure 2, said from here the group will be more hands-off when it comes to the state crafting its regulations. The group spent nearly $800,000 on the campaign, a majority of the pro-legalization side's fundraising, which totaled just under $900,000.

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the group will connect local lawmakers with experts and resources, but is unlikely to participate in the rulemaking process. Their role is giving local advocates the resources they need to create the regulations, leaving the states to craft rules that work for them.

"Our organization and staff generally won't be walking the halls of the legislature," Tvert said Wednesday.

But Bruce Schulte hopes his group will. Schulte, who served as the conservative face of Alaska's marijuana campaign, has been heading up public relations for the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation. That group, consisting mostly of business leaders, plans to work with the Legislature and any future Marijuana Control Board to craft regulations.

Schulte said he expects people from both sides of the issue to come together during the rulemaking process. Marijuana legalization is a change for the state, he said, and one that comes with legitimate concerns from people. But he believes those concerns will be addressed.

"At the end of the day, (marijuana legalization) is a problem of a defined scope and schedule, and we know what the variables are," Schulte said. "The only remaining question is how do we handle those variables and how do we do it in a rational way?"

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