Bill requiring background checks for marijuana sellers in limbo

Marijuana businesses are scheduled to open in June, after the state issues licenses. But there’s a hitch – the state won’t issue licenses until the Legislature passes a bill that allows for national criminal background checks, among other provisions. And  that bill is currently in limbo.

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

The Alaska Marijuana Control Board has put the brakes on issuing licenses until it can do national criminal background checks on applicants.

State Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office Director Cynthia Franklin says that’s because the Legislature requires background checks for licensees. But it hasn’t passed a bill that’s been proposed that would allow Franklin’s office to do these checks. She’s hopeful that lawmakers will pass the bill soon.

“I truly cannot believe that the Alaska Legislature would hold this tool hostage and prevent, you know, marijuana licensing from occurring, by enacting a statutory requirement and then not giving us the statutory language to meet that requirement,” Franklin said.

The versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate differ over two provisions of the legislation that have nothing to do with background checks.

Wasilla Republican Representative Cathy Tilton opposed marijuana legalization. But as chairwoman of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, Tilton crafted the House version of the bill. Her version would have required communities in unorganized boroughs to opt out of allowing commercial marijuana businesses- mirroriing state law for boroughs and municipal governments.

The Senate changed the bill to require Unorganized Borough communities to opt in. Tilton says she wants a conference committee to resolve the differences between the Senate and the House.

“Our goal was to be able to provide the communities with the tools that they need to implement whatever they want to do, at the local level, and that is why it was a good bill to me – to be able to allow those things to happen,” said Tilton.

The other provision that’s prompted differences would limit the number of marijuana plants residents could grow for personal use – some legislators would like it to be up to 24 plants, while others prefer a household limit of 12, with no more than six per adult. Tilton says she’s fine with the lower limit.

“I do feel that that is a reasonable number, if you — especially if you’re looking at generating any kind of a legitimate commercial industry,” Tilton said.

The legislative delay is a concern for those who want to launch their business in the coming months.

Sara Williams, chairwoman of the Matanuska Susitna Borough’s marijuana advisory committee, has been frustrated with the hold up. She’s hoping her retail business Midnight Greenery will open in downtown Anchorage in September.

Sarah Williams, chair of the Mat-Su Borough Marijuana Advisory Committee (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage)
Sara Williams, chair of the Mat-Su Borough Marijuana Advisory Committee (File photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage)

“I’m very hopeful that the Legislature can look forward to the future and realize that here we have a revenue stream,” said Williams. “We have an opportunity in a budget crisis to create jobs and create a revenue stream.”

Another bill could affect the Marijuana Control Board’s ability to issue licenses. House Bill 337, sponsored by Anchorage Republican Representative Gabrielle LeDoux, would allow the state to collect taxes on those who exceed the legal maximums for possessing and growing pot.

LeDoux says the bill would treat marijuana the same as alcohol. The bill also contains a provision that requires businesses that sell marijuana to post a bond. They would forfeit the bond if they don’t pay taxes.

Franklin says her office is ready to prepare the control board to issue licenses – but waiting for the Legislature to act hasn’t been the only challenge. Her office has fewer workers than those in other states that have legalized marijuana, and they’re answering a flood of questions from the public.

“You really just could not amp up the pressure any more than it is amped up on this staff,” Franklin said. “But that being said, they’re doing an amazing job. And we are, you know, moving forward, and we’re on time.”

Representative Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, is confident that once the background check bill goes to conference committee, the differences will be ironed out. But with the Legislature busy with other major legislation, it’s not clear when the bill will be sent into conference committee – or whether the licenses will be issued on time.