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What to watch for as Alaska's marijuana laws take shape

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 25, 2015

On the last day of Alaska's regular legislative session, the state Senate voted on a bill that would clarify municipal regulation of marijuana.

"This is our last marijuana bill," Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said before the vote. "I think members are relieved by that fact."

The bill wasn't controversial, she said. It had come about at the request of city governments looking for guidance.

The bill went to a vote. It failed, 10-10.

The next day, the bill was sent back to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will remain until legislators gavel in next year, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, confirmed Wednesday.

That signaled the end of the Legislature's efforts this year surrounding marijuana.

Lawmakers spent many hours discussing cannabis this session.

"Marijuana just demanded time," Coghill said, and the issues were so broad that they were difficult to come to consensus on.

Gov. Bill Walker has also signaled that he will not introduce any more pot-related bills as the Legislature limps along past its regular session. He "would like to see (the) regulation process through before making a decision about additional legislation," spokeswoman Grace Jang wrote.

So, now that it appears the Legislature has wrapped up its efforts this session, what passed, what didn't and what's next for Alaska's legalization landscape?

What passed?

Of the five pot bills introduced, legislators passed only one, on the last day of the regular legislative session -- a bill that creates a Marijuana Control Board.

The option of creating a Marijuana Control Board was written into Alaska's Ballot Measure 2. A bill establishing the board was requested by Gov. Bill Walker, and the day after the bill passed, he said that he supported the final version.

Once signed into law, the bill will create a five-member volunteer board. The board has seven months left to craft marijuana regulations. It will address a wide array of issues, from the amount of THC allowed per edible product to business license types to security and safety requirements.

The board will share the staff, resources and director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Most of the $1.57 million in funding included in the capital budget will go toward the expansion of the ABC Board, which has already hired several new employees.

The bill also gives explicit enforcement authority to the ABC Board -- meaning that it may use peace officer powers to shut down businesses acting illegally, as it does with alcohol businesses acting out of compliance.

ABC Board director Cynthia Franklin has reiterated many times the importance of having enforcement power, as businesses have already begun operating without licenses.

Once the bill is signed into law, "we're ready to rock and roll" and crack down on those businesses, Franklin said.

What stalled?

Four bills were introduced that didn't pass.

The most closely watched was Senate Bill 30, which attempted to modify Alaska's criminal statutes.

The bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux said Friday that it would not be addressed this session.

So what does it mean that no criminal bill was passed? In a nutshell: All criminal statutes that are not explicitly changed by the initiative are left in place.

The initiative carves out legal activity around marijuana -- all else remains the same. That means, for instance, that it's still a felony to have 25 cannabis plants or more in one's home.

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew put it this way: "If we have criminal statutes that are still on the books and they have not been rendered moot … then they're still available to be used, and we probably will be put in the position of using them from time to time."

Franklin, Coghill and Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation spokesman Bruce Schulte all said they wished a criminal statute bill had passed.

"Bringing those criminal statutes in line with the initiative is huge," Schulte said.

The Legislature "made a good stab at it," Schulte said, but "there wasn't enough time to wade through the issues."

Another bill that stalled in the Legislature was House Bill 75, which would clarify municipality processes for marijuana.

House Bill 75 made it through the House and to a vote on the Senate floor in the last day of the regular legislative session only to get kicked back to the drawing board.

The deal breakers? First, a 24-plant limit that some in the Senate thought was too high, Coghill said.

The second was whether communities in the "unorganized borough" -- a huge swath of land not in any borough that includes much of Southwest Alaska -- should have to opt in or out of allowing marijuana businesses.

These questions had "a little more complexity than many of us wanted to deal with when we thought we were going to be leaving Sunday," Coghill said, referring to April 19, 90 days after the Legislature went into session.

Coghill said that bill would be one of the first the Legislature tackles next session.

Two other bills stalled out as well. A bill that would make marijuana concentrates illegal in the first year of the regulatory process stopped in the House Judiciary Committee. A bill that would set up business license types -- including home grower and boutique licenses -- was introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee and then didn't budge for the entirety of the session.

What’s next?

Expect to see draft regulations within a week. The ABC Board meets April 29 and 30 and draft regulations will be introduced then. If approved, those drafts would be opened to public comment.

Franklin said the initial regulations will focus on testing facilities and local option laws.

The governor will appoint the members of the volunteer board -- "we are hoping very soon," Franklin said -- who will use the remaining seven months to figure out all the details.

Here's the board's timeline:

By Nov. 24, marijuana regulations must be adopted by the board.

By Feb. 24, marijuana business applications will be accepted.

March 2016: Regulations expected to go into effect.

May 24, 2016: First marijuana business licenses expected to be awarded.

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