Senate Judiciary Committee meeting

Sens. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and John Coghill, R-North Pole, listen to Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, right, on a break during the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on the marijuana crime bill on Feb. 20. The committee held many meetings on the bill, but left thinking it was far from finished.

JUNEAU — After weeks of hearings and substantial rewrites that added many dozens of pages, a bill to smooth out wrinkles between existing criminal laws and the initiative to legalize marijuana finally left its first committee on Friday, but not in a shape its authors were completely pleased with.

Senate Bill 30 would remove marijuana from the controlled substances list, amend existing drug laws to allow for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and create laws surrounding underage consumption of marijuana, but left the Senate Judiciary Committee with more work to be done.

Left unanswered are questions revolving around how minors using marijuana will be handled and whether their infractions would be easily searchable, as well as outstanding questions about marijuana concentrates.

The original goal had been to get the bill into the books by the time Ballot Measure 2 went into effect next Tuesday. Instead, it has been scheduled to appear in the next committee, the Senate Finance Committee, on that day. With the reality of the legislative process, getting the bill on the books by the end of the month is a near-impossible goal.

That said, committee chair Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said the bill, when it gets on the books, is something most marijuana users will be happy with.

“If you’re a person out there who uses marijuana and believes we’ve treated it unfairly, this should be a better day for you,” she said. “What we’re doing is we’re going to regulate it, and more to the point, what we’re also doing is saying if you’re 21 and older, we’re going to allow you to possess it and transport it legally.”

Faced with ambiguities in the ballot measure, the committee typically has trended toward being more progressive than seizing on opportunities to undermine the initiative.

McGuire said one example of that is driving with marijuana in a vehicle. She said law enforcement could have room to charge and prosecute users under the initiative as-is, but instead Senate Bill 30 opted for an open container law that leaves law enforcement with a more difficult task of proving the marijuana had been used inside the vehicle.

The law also currently makes all minor misconduct with marijuana confidential to not leave a damaging public record, something that is not done for alcohol, although it’s also being considered. The practicality of the measure was questioned, and the likely solution would be to remove minors from the searchable online database CourtView once the case is resolved. That issue likely will be addressed in the next committee.

Other questions sprung up around the issue of marijuana concentrates.

The law allows any person 21 or older to possess and transport up to one ounce of marijuana, which is defined to include both the plant material and concentrates.

Allowing someone to carry with them up to one ounce of concentrates hasn’t been sitting well with North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill because of its higher potency and value.

Coghill put forward an amendment to the bill that would have limited possession of concentrates to five grams, roughly the product of an ounce of marijuana flower.

The amendment was opposed by marijuana groups and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said whether or not they supported concentrates, it was in the ballot measure.

“We’ve talked a lot about what the voters thought,” he said. “It’s written in black and white, and whether or not they read a word of it, it’s there in law.”

Coghill ultimately withdrew his amendment, but said he would consider other ways of going about limiting concentrates to offer by the time the bill reaches the floor.

The committee did adopt an amendment that would limit the sale of marijuana concentrates, when sales go into effect in a year, to five grams.

After the meeting, McGuire said even though the bill left committee with loose ends, the entire package of legislation should just be considered a first of many steps.

“It’s the first chapter in many that the Alaska Legislature along with the Marijuana Control Board will go through,” she said. “The idea that you’re somehow going to take a 90-page bill and be done with the issue of marijuana is not practical at all. There’s a lot of work to do. Not just with this bill this session but with the subject altogether.”

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.