Lawmakers want bill to decriminalize marijuana fast tracked, but advocates question language

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JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska lawmakers hope to fast track a bill that would decriminalize marijuana, but legalization advocates disagree with the way legislators propose going about it.

The Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bill Friday that would decriminalize marijuana in certain situations and create new laws regarding the drug.

Advocates, however, question the way that the bill proposes accomplishing that. It would repeal the section of a voter initiative passed in November that permits personal use, replacing it with language that provides a defense in court if someone is prosecuted for possession.

In a statement, Tim Hinterberger from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said the proposed change is not in line with what voters approved.

"This is a lesser protection than what the voters have mandated, and the state has previously used this tactic to thwart the will of the voters in the case of medical marijuana, which passed by citizen initiative in 1998," Hinterberger wrote. "We are not suggesting that is the intent of this bill, but it is an issue proponents are particularly sensitive to given the history of marijuana policy in Alaska."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said she expected the defense provision to be a subject of "healthy debate" during committee hearings. She said she's open to other language, noting that marijuana is still illegal in more situations than it is legal.

"The philosophy is, marijuana is a controlled substance and it remains a controlled substance," she said.

Hearings on the bill are expected to begin Monday at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. The bill also has been referred to Senate Finance Committee, from which it would have to advance before being scheduled for a floor vote.

McGuire said she wants the bill to pass before Feb. 24, when recreational marijuana use is set to become legal under the initiative.

The bill also would create penalties for providing marijuana to minors, and it would add marijuana to the state's existing open container laws, making it illegal to drive with an "open marijuana container." That term is defined as a receptacle or marijuana accessory that contains marijuana and is open, with evidence that pot has been consumed in the vehicle.

The voter initiative also prohibited public consumption; that section would be repealed under the judiciary committee's bill, but committee Vice Chair John Coghill, R-North Pole, said public consumption would still be prohibited. The committee wants to instead use language that defines public consumption in state law, he said.

McGuire said the Judiciary Committee is planning another bill to create a special marijuana control board to handle the writing of regulations, rather than having the Alcoholic Beverage Control board in that role.

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