House Steps Towards Full Legal Marijuana Market

Many in the House  floor session were unclear of whether HB 123 would receive enough support to pass, all the way up until the vote.
Many in the House floor session were unclear of whether HB 123 would receive enough support to pass, all the way up until the vote.

A fundamental bill for establishing regulations over marijuana in Alaska passed the House today.  The bipartisan vote is a step towards the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board creating a permit structure for all components of a full legal market.

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Barrow Democrat Benjamin Nageak told colleagues during a House floor session there are some basic reasons marijuana needs its own regulatory board.

“I mean jeez, every time I see high people I go over, because I want to laugh,” Nageak said, illiciting chuckles from around the chamber. “I think we need to have a separate board to have, ya know, happy versus versus unhappy people.”

House Bill 123 sets up a body within the ABC Board to start doing exactly what voters opted for on Ballot Measure 2: regulating marijuana like alcohol.

The state has until November 24th to set up a regulatory structure for all the pieces of a legal marijuana market that don’t exist yet, from permits to grow, all the way to packaging and sales.

Many think it’s too much work for the ABC Board to handle without adding more capacity.

“The staff of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board is simply overwhelmed by the work they have right now,” said Anchorage Republican Liz Vazquez. “To throw in the mix matters dealing with marijuana and so forth–I don’t think it’s doable, I don’t think we’re appropriating enough resources to this issue.”

One of the biggest objections during the floor session was the fiscal note. Some house members say that at $1,574,400 the state can’t afford to pay for the four new staff positions it would create in the ABC Board.

While the Marijuana Board would be made up of five volunteers coming from different backgrounds, the staff working on their behalf are set to be full-time state employees. But ABC Board Director Cynthia Franklin insists the funds make all the difference.

“We need the money to not only get the people in place to take on this additional substance, but to get the technology in place to be able to answer reporters’ and legislators’ questions about what’s happening in marijuana,” Franklin said.

If approved by the Legislature, the new board would have dedicated experts handling many of the finer points of regulation that do not yet exist. They would also be responsible for creating public services similar to what is currently in place for alcohol, for example informing community members of who is applying for licenses, and confirming products were grown legally.

Lawmakers made a number of arguments against the bill. Some worried that it would allow felons to work in the new industry. Others raised concerns about the composition of the board, and what counts as a qualification when it comes to “industry experience.”

“You don’t have to be a cannibal to know something about cannibalism,”said Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux who sees narrow definitions of expertise as unnecessary.  “You want people to know something about marijuana who are regulating it.”

HB 123 passed 25 to 15, and now goes before the Senate for consideration.