In wave of felony marijuana charges, both sides point at publicity

Cannabis Plant. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Cannabis Plant. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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On Friday, with the state just two months away from finishing regulations for Alaska’s commercial marijuana sales, the Department of Law filed a raft of felony charges against three businesses. Whether the three operators broke the law by selling marijuana over the last few months will be decided in court. Right now, however, both sides allege that publicity is playing a role in the cases.

16 felonies and six more misdemeanors were filed against Anchorage-based Alaska Cannabis Club and Absolutely Chronic Deliveries Company, as well as Discreet Deliveries, which has multiple locations from Fairbanks down to the Kenai Peninsula.

According to charging documents, since the start of the year undercover agents bought marijuana from each business on multiple occasions. The individual felony charges are for every sale of more than an ounce.

John Skidmore heads the Law Department’s Criminal Division, and said that even as regulations are still being written, the state’s rules on sales have been clear.

“It’s not yet legal to sell marijuana in the state of Alaska,” Skidmore said. When voters approved Ballot Measure Two in November it set up a framework for building a regulated industry. “But we’re not there yet.”

All three companies have a high profile, which is part of what drew investigators, according to Skidmore.

“You have several entities here that didn’t take any sort of efforts to hide or conceal the activities in which they were engaging. I think some of them have–to the contrary–tried to make a public point about the conduct in which they were engaging,” Skidmore said.

He also believes that the self-promotion is a part of why these three businesses in particular so often make the news, even as law enforcement has pursued plenty of other marijuana cases over the same stretch of time.

One of the most publicly visible businesses charged is Discreet Deliveries, which has done just under a million dollars in sales since the start of the year, according to co-founder Rocky Burns. He disputes the State’s claims, and is open about his business because he believes he is acting within the boundaries of the laws that are on the books.

Burns doesn’t expect the seven felonies against him to hold up in court.

“I don’t believe the state has any weight behind these charges,” Burns said. “I think it’s just for the newspaper.”

The three cases are unrelated. But Skidmore with the Department of Law explained that because they’re built on similar evidence and required comparable review ahead of filing charges, the timing was a product of convenience.

But Burns thinks the charges are all for show.

“I don’t think there’s anything behind it other than ‘We better look like we’re doing something,'” Burns said, adding “Why didn’t they arrest me?”

Burns insists he’s made every effort to work with officials–including calling the District Attorney’s office and offering to turn himself in earlier this week. He’s looking forward to offering arguments and evidence in court showing that he did not break the state’s prohibition on sales.

One of Burns’s chief frustrations is a complaint that’s common among Alaska’s small collection burgeoning cannabis businesses: The State hasn’t always been easy to work with.

“It has not been easy at all,” said Theresa Collins, a co-owner of Pot Luck Events, a special events space in Anchorage where due-paying members can use and trade small amounts of cannabis. The state didn’t file charges against her or any of Pot Luck’s co-owners.

Collins is quick to clarify at every opportunity that there is absolutely no marijuana sold in her business. But making sure that officials with the state, city, and various regulatory bodies understand that has been trickier than she anticipated when the doors opened in March. After Collins was sent a warning to cease and desist operations earlier this year, she reached out to municipal officials trying to verify that her business was not violating any rules.

“I have checked everything with our attorney before we’ve done anything, so I think that has kept us on the safe side of the law,” Collins said.

Marijuana policy advocates have had a vexed relationship the last few months with businesses like Collins’s and Burns’s. Leif Abel is Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation. He believes that while some areas are a little gray, the State’s overall message to green entrepreneurs after Ballot Measure Two passed has been clear: Wait for finished regulations in a year.

“They did not want businesses operating early because it would gut any regulatory authority,” Abel said.

Abel disagrees with the State’s decision to pursue felony charges for a non-violent offense in these instances, but he believes the businesses understood the risks. When the state’s permit structure for commercial marijuana sellers is set up in a few months, people with felonies in the last five years will be ineligible to apply. Abel thinks all the attention around ACC, ACDC, and Discreet Deliveries is the state’s way of drawing a clear line between whom they’ll count as a good operator or a bad one when licensure begins.

“I think the message they’re sending is the same one they’ve been sending all along, only they put teeth in it this time,” Abel said. He saw the state sending signals that they did not want anyone jumping into business ahead of fully implemented regulations. But when people did, there was no punitive action taken.

“No one was getting in trouble, and more people were starting to think ‘maybe we should operate early.'” Abel thinks the sole intent of the recent charges is to stop others from early operations.

Skidmore with the Department of Law laid out one other reason the state felt it was important to file charges on early operators: Fairness to those waiting patiently on the sidelines for regulations to take shape.