Walker Plans To Stick To Marijuana Implementation Schedule, But Other Delays Still Possible

After considering a delay in legal marijuana sales, Gov. Bill Walker has confirmed that implementation of rules regulating the drug should meet the schedule approved by voters. But APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that doesn’t necessarily mean they will.

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At a Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce event in mid-December, Gov. Bill Walker made a crack about how he wished he could delay the work of marijuana regulation for four years. During campaign season, back when he was still a candidate and the fate of a marijuana ballot measure was yet to be decided, Walker spent little time talking about the initiative except to say he opposed it. Now obligated by voters to do something about it, Walker told the Fairbanks audience he would like to delay some parts of the marijuana initiative by 90 days.

But in a press release on Tuesday, the governor announced he plans to stick to the schedule set by the initiative, with marijuana business licenses available by May of 2016. According to those tasked with the work of implementation, making that deadline is still going to be tight.

“There’s very little leeway or room in that timeline,” says Cynthia Franklin, director of the state’s alcoholic beverage control board

That board is working with the Department of Revenue and the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development to come up with an implementation plan. At a recent meeting with the governor, participants concluded that it is possible to meet the terms of the initiative. It’s just not guaranteed.

“When you actually go look at the process for meeting those deadlines, really, everything has to go right. What we were pleased [about] when we had the meeting with the governor’s office is that everyone is on board with making everything go as right as possible.”

The marijuana initiative gets added to the books on February 24, and the law will basically go into effect in stages. Possession of the drug outside the home will become legal at that point, but the state legislature will be given the chance to set some of the terms governing commercial operations. Then, a regulatory board has until November 24 to craft its own rules for the industry. Those rules then go to the Department of Law for legal review. It won’t be until next February until marijuana ventures can submit licensing applications.

While that may sound like a long time, Franklin says there are plenty of opportunities for hold-ups, and a lot depends on what the legislature decides to do with the new marijuana policy. Lawmakers could just let the existing alcoholic beverage control board manage the cannabis industry, but they could also create a separate marijuana control board to govern it. Initiative proponents have supported this idea to prevent regulatory power struggles between the alcohol and marijuana industries, and a bill to create such a board is already being drafted by Senate judiciary chair Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican.

Franklin says if the legislature goes that route, and serves the board with a new agency, it will be “impossible” to meet the initiative’s deadlines.

“There is no question in my mind that if the legislature creates a separate marijuana control board and a separate marijuana control agency — and that agency has to be hired and put in place and put somewhere physical, and they all have to learn and understand their new jobs, and then they have to work with their brand new board in their brand new industry creating brand new rules from scratch — they will not meet those deadlines,” says Franklin.

Bruce Schulte represents a marijuana industry trade group, and while he’s not as emphatic as Franklin, he doesn’t really disagree.

“I don’t know that it would be impossible, but certainly it would take up valuable time if a new board is to be created,” says Schulte.

That leaves members of his group — the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation — in a bit of a bind. Schulte says they like the idea of marijuana and alcohol being regulated separately, but they also want to see implementation happen as quickly as possible. Constitutionally, the legislature cannot weaken or undo an initiative for two years. But because so much of those two years need to be spent on rule-making before retailers can sell the product, Schulte is worried that leaves the new marijuana law in a vulnerable spot.

“Optimistically, the first stores would be open by August, maybe September, of 2016,” says Schulte. “So, at that point, you’ve got barely six months to establish a track record and to generate some revenue and prove that it can be done responsibly before the legislature then has the opportunity to shut the whole thing down.”

Schulte thinks it’s possible to create a separation between alcohol and marijuana regulators while still meeting the initiative timeline. He says that could be done by establishing an independent marijuana board, while keeping it in the same agency as the ABC board and having it share the same staff.

“I think that would be a compromise,” says Schulte.

If the legislature opts not to create any sort of marijuana control board, the ABC board will be granted regulatory authority over the drug by default.