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Alaska House votes to legalize hemp farming

The Alaska House of Representatives has voted unanimously to legalize hemp farming in Alaska, a move that puts the 49th state on track to become the 35th in the country to legalize cultivation of the non-intoxicating form of cannabis.

Senate Bill 6, drafted by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote. That procedure is expected to be a formality, as is its approval by Gov. Bill Walker. (The Senate approved an earlier version of the bill 20-0 last year.)

“It’s not going to solve our fiscal gap and economic woes, but for a number of individuals, it will create new opportunities,” Hughes said after the votes were tallied.

She said she had just hung up the phone with former state Sen. Johnny Ellis, the longtime Democrat from Anchorage, who had introduced a similar measure in his final term of office.

“He’s been watching it, so that was kind of cool,” she said, and Ellis offered his own thoughts by Twitter, saying that it offers “freedom to farm.”

In the House, the bill was carried by Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, who said “the commercial possibilities of hemp are numerous and versatile.”

Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, said that while he has concerns about the legalization of recreational marijuana, that’s not what this bill is about. SB 6 allows hemp with a THC content of 0.3 percent or less; at that concentration, Saddler said, you could smoke a ton of it and not get anything more than a sore throat and lungs.

Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, pointed out that it was appropriate for the bill to be approved on Presidents’ Day because early presidents including George Washington and John Adams were hemp cultivators.

In addition to allowing the cultivation of hemp under a state license, SB 6 exempts hemp-derived CBD oil from the state’s marijuana regulations. In 2017, representatives of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office confiscated CBD oil from marijuana retailers across the state, citing ambiguities in state law.

No vote on unemployment

Also Monday, the House notably failed to vote on House Bill 142, a measure to increase the state’s weekly unemployment insurance payments.

The bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, reached the floor last week but has repeatedly failed to come to a vote. On Monday, Tuck asked that the bill return to the House Rules Committee, in effect a step backward.

After Monday’s floor session, Tuck said his fellow lawmakers had “lots of questions” that didn’t come up in committee.

“We’re going to have to educate some people before it gets on the floor,” he said.

Elected marriage

While HB 142 didn’t get a vote, House lawmakers did vote 29-6 to approve House Bill 20, sponsored by Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, which gives elected officials the ability to solemnize marriages without a special permit.

Under Alaska law, anyone can pay a small fee and become a marriage commissioner capable of officiating over a legally binding wedding. (The couple is still required to obtain a separate state marriage license.)

Claman’s bill allows any elected official to officiate a wedding, and he said the idea was to give Alaskans more options, particularly if they don’t have a religious official nearby and aren’t able to visit a courthouse to find a commissioner.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, suggested an amendment that would have abolished the idea of marriage commissioners and allowed any Alaskan to marry any couple without charge, but that idea was unanimously rejected by the House. Only Eastman voted for it.

HB 20 advances to the Senate for consideration.

No ‘Frankenfish’

The Alaska Senate on Monday voted 19-0 in favor of a House-sponsored resolution that strongly opposes the idea of genetically engineered salmon. House Joint Resolution 19 urges Congress to pass a bill mandating labels for any engineered salmon approved for consumer sale.

The resolution was passed in time for presentation to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who will deliver her annual address to the Legislature on Thursday.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

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