Marijuana bill fails in Legislature

A House bill in the Alaska State Legislature aimed at curbing methamphetamine production was struck down by a 23-15 vote after merging with a marijuana bill in the Senate Feb. 1.

House Bill 149 was a bipartisan attempt to address the growing problems of meth production through tougher penalties and regulation of the selling of pseudoephedrine, a major ingredient in meth that is found in many over-the-counter cold medications.

Had the bill passed, it would have nullified a 1975 Raven decision, which made it legal for adults to possess marijuana in their homes for personal use. After being criminalized once again in 1990, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld its earlier decision in 2004, saying that adults are entitled to possess up to four ounces of marijuana in their homes because of the Alaska Constitution’s guarantee to privacy.

The proposed legislation sought to classify the possession of more than four ounces of marijuana as a felony; the possession of four ounces or less would have been a misdemeanor.

Jane Pearson, who spoke on behalf of Rep, Jay Ramras, the Republican sponsor of the bill, said it would have attacked manufacturers of meth by requiring that medications containing pseudoephedrine be kept behind pharmacy counters, and would have instituted the use of logbooks to keep track of individuals who purchase products containing pseudoephedrine.

“The bill was intended to counter the growing problem of ‘mom and pop’ labs,” Pearson said.

In addition to restricting the purchase of pseudoephedrine, the bill would have strengthened existing penalties for the drug’s production. In particular, it would have increased the penalties of those who produce the drug around children and those who distribute it to minors. It would have also made it possible for dealers to be charged with manslaughter if their drugs caused the death of a user.

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Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, co-sponsored the legislation after championing a similar bill that fell to partisan politics.

“I was able to amend several aspects of my bill into [Ramras’s] bill,” Crawford said.

The logbook aspect of the bill has garnered support from law enforcement, but was cut from the bill by the Senate.

The removal of the logbook requirement in the Senate version of the bill caused several law enforcement agencies to send letters to Crawford. The intent of the letters, according to Crawford, was to show support for reintroducing the logbook requirement into the bill.

The most damning change to the bill was its merger with the marijuana bill supported by Governor Frank Murkowski.

The Governor’s marijuana bills have been circulating through the House and Senate since last year’s Legislative session. Crawford speculated that the merger of the two bills was a move to make the marijuana bill more palatable.

“There are as many opinions on the marijuana issue as there are members of the legislature,” Crawford said.

One organization with opinions on the marijuana issue is the Marijuana Policy Project, the national parent to the organization Regulate Marijuana in Alaska.

Bruce Markem of the Marijuana Policy Project said the move by the governor to merge the meth and marijuana bills was an attempt to override the Alaska Constitution.

“This was sort of a sneaky maneuver to tack it on to this meth bill and short circuit debate and discussion,” Markem said.

Markem also said the arguments used in justifying the marijuana bill are questionable. The bill claims that since the landmark Raven’s decision that established a legal right to possess marijuana in Alaska, the drug has become more dangerous and its users more violent.

Marijuana Policy Project disagrees with the Governor’s argument.

“Most of what is contained in this bill as far as justifications for the marijuana provisions is just scientifically wrong,” Markem said.

On campus, the state’s marijuana laws are enforced by UPD.

Officer Katie Paaki of UPD said individuals caught using marijuana on campus currently face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in prison.

If a student is caught possessing marijuana in a campus housing area, UPD confiscates the drugs and allows Residence Life to handle disciplining the student. If the student does not cooperate with UPD and Residence Life, the officers have the ability to charge the student under federal statutes.

“People don’t realize if you have marijuana [and] if you get convicted, you could lose your college financial aid,” Paaki said. “It does have consequences.”

Paaki said that, because of its damaging effects, meth is generally not an issue among UAA students.

“You get addicted to meth and that’s all you think about; you don’t wake up to go to class, you don’t wake up to go to a job, you just want that next hit,” Paaki said. “Once you start getting into meth you’re not going to be a college student very long.”

The damage that meth has inflicted on Alaskan society is enough to keep House Bill 149 alive. A bipartisan committee consisting of three Senators and three Representatives, including Crawford, has been assembled to revise it.

“I would speculate that before we’re done there will be a meth bill,” Crawford said.