By ELISE GIORDANO
As of Tuesday Feb. 24, private use of marijuana is legal in the state of Alaska. The number one question on people’s minds – what does that mean for Skagway? Many question the effect the drug will have on the economy as well as the neighborhood.
Will smoke shops begin popping up on Broadway? Will tourists think they can find pot on every corner? Will marijuana tours be the newest and hottest attraction?
What many people have failed to consider are the details behind the measure that passed in November.
Prop. 2 stated that persons 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants, with up to three flowering plants. It also clearly stated that the use of the drug in public would be banned.
If caught smoking in public, the smoker would face a fine of up to $100.
An issue among all Alaskan communities is the definition of the word public.
When the drug was made legal, it was clear that the Alcohol Beverage Control Board would regulate it like alcohol.
With this in mind, communities throughout the state have been advised to refrain from drafting ordinances until the details have been hashed out. The ABC board has nine months to enact regulations.
[quote_right]“People might have been happier leaving this alone,” he said. [/quote_right]
But on Tuesday morning, the board issued an emergency regulation defining public as “a place to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access and includes highways, transportation facilities, schools, places of amusement or business, parks, playgrounds, prisons, and hallways, lobbies, and other portions of apartment houses and hotels not constituting rooms or apartments designed for actual residence.”
The board also decided to move forward in crafting regulations for the use of the drug.
Mayor Mark Schaefer said the word public was one of the biggest issues being faced.
“Where is this going to be okay to do and not to do? We certainly don’t want it happening around little kids,” Schaefer said.
He said the municipality doesn’t want to overreact and create unnecessary laws, but admitted that there will be issues to face.
“It’s certainly going to be a more complex subject than the public thinks,” he said.
In 2011, the municipality adopted a Secondhand Smoke Control Ordinance prohibiting the smoking of tobacco in all indoor public places and within 10 feet outside of any enclosed public place where smoking is prohibited.
Schaefer suggested the possibility of adjusting the smoking ordinance to include marijuana as well as tobacco.
“People might have been happier leaving this alone,” he said.
Though the freedom to smoke pot legally seems like a new triumph for its supporters, possessing an ounce of the drug was first legalized in 1975.
But Alaska’s history with the drug has been a battle from the start.
In 1972, Irwin Ravin, a criminal-defense attorney from Homer, was pulled over for a broken taillight.
When presented with a ticket, Ravin refused to sign it and presented the officer with marijuana. He was arrested on charges of possession.
Ravin’s fight against the law would set precedence for years to come.
In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court found that the possession of marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home was protected by the constitution, and in 1982, the legal possession was raised to four ounces.
But five years later, the law was overturned, and all marijuana possession, even in your home, was criminalized.
In 1998, medical marijuana became legal, and in 2000, pot supporters would once again endeavor to make the possession of the drug legal.
Those in favor of the drug reached a small victory when, in 2006, the attorney general said he would not enforce criminal possession of less than four ounces.
But later that same year, Governor Frank Murkowski made the possession of one to four ounces a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.
It wasn’t until November 2014 that a ballot proposition was passed with 53 percent in favor and 46 percent against the legalization of possessing, selling and taxing marijuana.
Today, a person can possess up to one ounce under the new ballot initiative, and up to four ounces under Ravin v. State. The possession of more than four ounces is punishable as a Class C Felony.
Under the current law, municipalities have the right to ban retail marijuana establishments, but not the personal possession or growing of the plant for personal use.
Every ounce sold is hit with a $50 excise tax by the state.
However, commercial marijuana businesses will not be legally allowed to operate until the spring or summer of 2016 – once the ABC Board has defined a set of rules.
Permits for said businesses will be accepted in February 2016.
As of now, it is illegal to engage in delivery, manufacturing or testing of the drug.
The bill also provides for communities in Alaska to opt out of the manufacture and sale of marijuana. However, they will still be required to abide by the constitutional rights set forth by Ravin v. Alaska.
Though businesses are not yet allowed to engage in marijuana related activities, some are trying to get a head start.
The Planning and Zoning Commission approved a conditional use permit for a garden tour on Liarsville Rd. during a Jan. 8 meeting.
The low-impact tour would include sampling of cannabis and other medicinal plants.
Commissioners approved the application with a split 3-2 vote.
In an interview, Commissioner Matt Deach said he highly doubts the tour “is going to fly.”
“There are all kinds of regulations that they are going to have to get around,” he said.
Deach said the tour was approved by P&Z because it’s not the commission’s business to care about the types of plants being shown on the tour.
The focus was on zoning and allowances on the property.
He said he foresees a few pot related issues in town, but doesn’t think Skagway will turn into an overnight pot tourism destination.
“I think it’s going to be a very small impact on the community,” Deach said.
Skagway Police Chief Ray Leggett is of a different opinion.
“I think it’s going to affect [the community] on a large scale because of the fact that the laws are still unclear, and people are going to be jumping the gun,” Leggett said.
He said he foresees both locals and tourists thinking they can smoke anywhere and be fine.
The SPD has yet to run into any issues, but has begun to talk about what actions they will take as the laws evolve. Leggett’s goal is to instill voluntary compliance.
“Our goal is not, and never has been, to just hammer everybody as long as we can,” he said.
Under the new law, a person 21 years or older is allowed to give up to one ounce of marijuana to another person, so long as nothing of any value is exchanged.
As long as private entities are not allowed to sell their personal plants, how will one legally purchase the drug?
Not very easily.
Though the law may have changed in the state of Alaska, nothing has changed federally.
It is illegal to transport marijuana, and any drug, across state lines and through border crossings.
U.S Customs and Border Protection Assistant Area Port Director Jeffrey Lisius said CBP has a zero-tolerance policy on illegal drugs, and added that consequences are determined on a case-by-case basis.
“Any type, in any amount, may result in serious fines, seizure of vehicle, federal record, and/or imprisonment,” Lisius said.
It’s not only illegal to drive marijuana across state lines, but to mail it, too.
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration’s website, the penalty for trafficking less than 50 kilograms, equivalent to 35 ounces, is punishable by up to five years in prison with a fine of no more than $250,000 for your first offense.
A second offense is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, with a fine of up to $500,000.
While United States Postal Service employees are not allowed to open packages, if they smell marijuana, the package is sent to an inspection facility where the contents are then determined.
The only way to legally smoke marijuana in Skagway is to grow it.
Chief Leggett said they have run into problems with growing before, mainly because of the smell.
“There’s been a lot of complaints because it stinks to grow it,” he said. “I shouldn’t have my quality of life altered because of their quality of life.”
But regardless of the smell, as of Tuesday is it legal to grow up to six marijuana plants, but only for personal use.
Businesses will have to wait at least another year before they can think about selling the drug.
Until then, locals and tourists alike need to be mindful of both federal and municipal laws.
“I would use my head in terms of how you travel because the feds govern from the ferry to the air,” Leggett said.
He added that although the state may have instilled its own laws, cities and municipalities reserve the right to make their own, too.
“It’s for personal consumption,” Leggett said. “Keep it indoors and keep it personal.”