Pubdate: Tue, 27 Jan 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Suzanna Caldwell


A bill looking to clarify Alaska's criminal marijuana laws appeared 
to only stupefy legislators and supporters of the measure Monday by 
making the state's already complicated marijuana laws even more confusing.

In a joint meeting of the House and Senate judiciary committees 
Monday, Alaska legislators asked questions of the drafters of Senate 
Bill 30, which looks to update laws related to criminal enforcement 
of marijuana. While certain points of the bill appear relatively 
straightforward -- clarifying the definition of marijuana, making it 
illegal to have open marijuana containers in a vehicle -- a section 
dealing with the heart of the law updating criminal statutes related 
to personal possession and manufacture drew serious concern.

The bill would retain the current prohibition against possession, 
sale and manufacture of marijuana. But it would add a provision 
allowing someone charged to use the recreational marijuana initiative 
as a legal defense in court.

How exactly the bill's phrase, "defense to prosecution," would play 
out in the real world was the subject of much of Monday's discussion.

During the meeting, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, asked Hilary 
Martin, counsel with the Legislature's legal services department who 
helped draft the bill, if a person carrying less than 1 ounce of 
marijuana could be arrested, charged and taken to trial under the 
provisions of the bill.

"Technically, that is a possibility," Martin replied.

But such possession was made legal by the initiative, Ballot Measure 
2, which voters approved in November.

Martin added that if the person was within the bounds of the 
initiative, SB 30 would allow them to invoke the initiative to win in 
court. In any event, Martin said, prosecution was a "low risk" for 
anyone possessing 1 ounce or less.

But Tracy Wallenberg, deputy public defender with the state's public 
defender agency, said SB 30 is "problematic" in its defense 
provisions. Not only does it undermine voter intent, she testified, 
but it could result in inconsistent or discriminatory enforcement and 
drain state resources.

"Setting up in this way uses resources that may not be necessary 
given the initiative's intent," she said.

Supporters of the ballot initiative agreed. In a statement outlining 
their concerns, initiative co-sponsor Tim Hinterberger wrote that SB 
30 would "eviscerate" the intent of the initiative.

"This is a lesser protection than what the voters have mandated, and 
the state has previously used this tactic to thwart the will of the 
voters in the case of medical marijuana, which passed by citizen 
initiative in 1998," he said in a statement Friday. "We are not 
suggesting that is the intent of this bill, but it is an issue 
proponents are particularly sensitive to given the history of 
marijuana policy in Alaska."

Legislators on both sides of the aisle also appeared concerned with 
the defense provisions violating the will of voters. Sen. Lesil 
McGuire, R-Anchorage, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted 
that Martin would get "two auditions" on the bill, and said that the 
committee would be "looking forward" to another draft of the proposed 
law, though it was unclear Monday what that might look like.

In an interview Friday, McGuire acknowledged concerns over the 
defense provisions. She said she "wrestled" with the idea, but 
ultimately settled with the defense language in the bill after 
conferring with legislative legal counsel. She said the counsel's 
office told her that based on the way Alaska state statutes are 
written, the "defense to prosecution" approach was the "most 
comfortable" way of dealing with decriminalization.

"The point is to decriminalize it, to make it clear you can't be 
prosecuted if you're over 21," she said Friday. "The way you get at 
it I'm sure will be a discussion between the committee."

McGuire said that part of allowing the defense language is to move 
the bill through the Legislature quickly. The bill is one of three 
involving marijuana the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to introduce 
this session. The second will deal with creating a marijuana control 
board housed within the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which is 
currently tasked with developing marijuana regulations. The third 
bill will be an omnibus bill dealing with everything else -- 
including advertising, zoning and other regulatory issues.

McGuire said the criminal aspects needed to be dealt with first, 
since the personal possession portion of the law goes in to effect 
Feb. 24. Hearings on SB 30 will continue through the week, with 
another meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

Bruce Schulte, spokesman for the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis 
Legislation, understood the pressure of why the bill was introduced 
with the convoluted defense language. Still, the group, whose focus 
is on representing marijuana industry through the regulatory process, 
had serious concerns about the provisions as they were outlined Friday.

"I think (SB 30) was imperfect out of necessity," Schulte said. "We 
think people should be comfortable engaging in these things in their 
own homes and not having to go to court. Even if charges are 
dismissed, lives (would be) severely disrupted and we don't see that 
as an acceptable outcome."

Schulte, who was invited to testify Monday, said afterward that he 
felt more comfortable after watching legislators react to the bill. 
He suspects a more modest version of the bill to be on the way soon.

"They had two directions to take and most would agree they picked the 
wrong one," Schulte said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom