JUNEAU — The Legislature’s first stab at a bill dealing with legalized marijuana was roundly criticized by lawmakers, state officials and legalization advocates during its first hearing on Monday.
Criticism largely focused on Senate Bill 30’s approach to making the voter initiative play nice with existing crimes for marijuana, which opponents said puts the burden on legal users.
Instead of repealing or amending existing laws, the first draft of the bill opted to keep those laws on the books while allowing the voter initiative — which legalizes the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana — to serve as a defense for those crimes.
It was a concept that some on the Joint Judiciary Committee were having trouble understanding, prompting some, like Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, to try putting it into simpler terms.
“So the voters basically said, ‘You can do this,’” he said. “Under this proposal we would be saying, ‘You can’t do it, but then you can try to come up with an excuse saying that you’re allowed to do it anyway.’”
Legislative Legal Affairs member Hillary Martin, who helped in drafting the bills, said “that’s one way to describe” how the bill would work.
Other lawmakers piled on with more visceral descriptions.
“The people of Alaska have voted to allow 1 ounce or less of marijuana,” said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski. “But here we’re going to give the police the ability to go out and arrest people who are carrying that amount of marijuana, handcuff them, put them in a police car, take them to jail, lock them in jail, have them post a bond and have them potentially go through a jury trial while they assert that it’s an affirmative defense?”
“Technically, that is a possibility,” Martin said. “Technically there is nothing stopping a police officer from arresting someone for that now. But it’s a low risk.”
It wasn’t a convincing argument, especially for House Judiciary Chair Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.
“I share some of the same concerns that Sen. Wielechowski does,” she said, addressing Martin. “You said it’s low risk, but it’s still some sort of a risk.”
The defense route was defended loosely as just one method of approaching legalization and was one of the simpler approaches, instead of rewriting dozens of existing laws.
The critical lawmakers were backed up by both the state Public Defender Agency and the Department of Law.
Tracey Wollenberg, of the Public Defender Agency, said the defense would place a major burden on people who would otherwise be doing something legal and even if they end up without a penalty, it would create a criminal record.
“This bill is inconsistent with the language and express purpose of the initiative and undermines voter intent,” she said. “Creating the defense is not implementing the voter intent. It is placing the burden on a defendant when they’re arrested.”
Richard Svobodny, of the Alaska Department of Law, said he felt the bill also missed the point of the voter initiative, which was to focus state assets on violent crimes. As is written, he said Senate Bill 30 would require additional court resources.
Ballot Measure 2, which passed by wide margins in the Fairbanks and Juneau areas, will make possession and use of marijuana legal on Feb. 24. Lawmakers put forward Senate Bill 30 as an attempt to clarify legal gray areas before the initiative went into effect.
After the meeting, Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Lesil McGuire said she’s been aware of the criticisms and said a new draft of the bill that would go the more favored route of repealing and reworking existing laws is in the works.
The next meeting on Senate Bill 30 will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday, McGuire said. It will be hosted by the House Judiciary Committee.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.