ERC Editorial: Marijuana certainty needed

  • By EMPIRE READERS' COUNCIL
  • Friday, March 18, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

In her recent speech to the Alaska Legislature, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stressed her efforts to reduce federal restrictions on the state’s business activities, while providing certainty that new regulations and restrictions will not come in the future. Nowhere is that certainty more necessary than for Alaska’s incipient marijuana businesses, which will open under the shadow of unclear and ambivalent federal regulation.

As a result of the vote of the people of Alaska, the state is joining with 22 others and the District of Columbia in legalizing the use of marijuana in some form. Alaska’s Marijuana Control Board is now accepting applications from entrepreneurs for cultivation, testing, product production and retail. This will be a big business, even in our small state.

In 2015, Washington and Colorado collected more than $100 million in taxes from recreational and medicinal marijuana production and sales. Tax revenues in these states are projected to rise to more than $300 million per year.

This economic activity is, by law, all locally generated. All production and sales are within each state. This is money that was going out of state to drug smugglers and cartels, and is now supporting small farmers and retailers in states like Washington and Colorado. Think of it, that’s billions of dollars that was going to support gangs and drug cartels; now, that money is staying in the states, and can be taxed to support the substance abuse and addiction treatment programs needed to deal with the abuse of both legal and illegal drugs. While the volumes and revenues will be much less in Alaska with our smaller population base, it will still be a substantial boost to local economies, a revenue source for local and state taxes, and a diversion from the criminal black market.

The elimination of marijuana prohibition by states for either recreational or medical use does not change the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Marijuana is still included on the Drug Enforcement Agency Schedule 1, along with heroin. Never mind that according to the Center for Disease Control, heroin and prescription opiates caused more than 47,000 overdose deaths in 2014, while the number of marijuana overdose deaths stayed steady at zero.

Alcohol, by contrast, results in over 2,000 overdose deaths per year. The current use of marijuana within states that have legalized it is “allowed” under a U.S. Department of Justice memorandum that lists eight conditions that must be complied by the legalizing states. The conditions are quite reasonable: prevent the distribution of marijuana to minors and prevent revenues from sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels.

However, the memorandum is only guidance to federal prosecutors, and does not in itself change legal authority. It can be withdrawn at any time, leaving individuals involved with the legal (under state law) marijuana culture, sales, use, and associated financial transactions open to the full weight of the Controlled Substances Act for Schedule 1 drugs, including arrest, incarceration and seizure of assets.

In spite of this threat, there are people in Alaska willing to start businesses under our new regulatory authority. These individuals are willing to take the financial and personal risks involved as a chance to make money, but also because they believe people should have the right to self-determination on this issue. They need certainty in their regulatory environment as they start these businesses.

We call on Sen. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Rep. Don Young to work in Congress to keep our citizens safe from federal intervention in Alaska’s marijuana businesses, to get marijuana off the Schedule 1 list, and to allow states to regulate and control marijuana use (or prohibition) as they see fit.

Given the wide variety of states, both red and blue, that have moved toward decriminalization and legalization, this is a great opportunity for our Alaska congressional delegation to be a leader in taking bipartisan action on an issue of state sovereignty.

• Empire Readers’ Council editorials are written by members Joe Geldhof, Abby Lowell, Tom Rutecki and Alex Wertheimer. The council is currently seeking members; interested parties should contact Publisher Rustan Burton at rustan.burton@juneauempire.com.

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