Senate adds hurdle for rural pot businesses

The Alaska Senate voted 18-2 on Wednesday to force communities outside incorporated cities to “opt in” if they want a commercial marijuana industry.

If a location is outside a borough and unincorporated, marijuana businesses are forbidden unless the community explicitly allows the business with a local election.

“In other words, they are out until they opt in,” said Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

House Bill 75, introduced in the Legislature last year and modified by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday morning, also includes provisions allowing national background checks for new marijuana licensees and a statement that the legal limit for home marijuana grows is 12 plants, if the home contains two or more adults. That’s half the 24-plant limit implemented by Ballot Measure 2 in 2014.

“This version … really addresses nearly all of the non-criminal issues that have been identified by the Marijuana Control Board,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and the Senate Majority Leader.

Bruce Schulte, chairman of the Marijuana Control Board, said by phone that the parts of the bill dealing with background checks, a defined plant limit, and a formal definition of “village” (a term used in the 2014 ballot initiative) were all on the board’s “wish list”.

As for the opt-in component, “that is not something the board has a position on either way,” he said.

Leif Abel is executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation, which supported the legalization effort in 2014. On Wednesday, he said the “opt in” provision of the bill is “obviously something that the CRCL doesn’t support.”

In 2014, when Alaska voters approved commercial marijuana by a 53-47 margin, the ballot stated in part, “The bill would allow a local government to prohibit the operation of marijuana-related entities.”

Abel said the bill passed by the Senate inverts what Alaskans voted for. Instead of being asked to vote to prohibit, they’ll be asked to vote to accept, in effect repeating what they did at the ballot box two years ago.

“That’s contradictory to the intent of the voter initiative,” he said.

Abel said he doesn’t have a problem with other parts of the bill covering background checks and limits on home-grown marijuana.

“I think that clarifying that sort of stuff is a good thing,” he said of plant limits. “We don’t want law enforcement or other people to be confused.”

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, was one of the two votes against the measure. He said the bill’s rapid advancement meant he’s not sure what’s in it, and he’s concerned that the restrictions on businesses beyond borough limits “could be extended to other types of businesses in the future.”

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, was the other vote against the bill. He said he is firmly opposed to the legalization of marijuana concentrates, which he views as an “extremely dangerous drug.”

“I think years from now, we’re going to regret what we’ve just done,” he said.

The bill now heads back to the House, which will vote on whether or not to agree with the changes the Senate has made since the bill passed the House last year. If the House makes its own changes, the House and Senate will convene a conference committee to draft a compromise.

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