Senate panel discusses federal issues with state marijuana legalization

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JUNEAU, Alaska — A state Department of Law official told concerned lawmakers Thursday that regulating marijuana shouldn't result in federal prosecution.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing that she had heard from members of the public who thought that legislators were violating federal law if they implemented the ballot initiative legalizing marijuana.

Department of Law representative Rick Svobodny told lawmakers that isn't the case. The oath requires them to uphold federal and state constitutions, but it doesn't mention specific federal laws.

"If it's speech, debate, voting, making a public policy call, you're ultimately going to be immune," he said. Svobodny noted that lawmakers — like any other citizen— could still be prosecuted for other crimes related to marijuana, such as possession on federal property.

Although Alaska voters approved possession, personal use and transportation of limited quantities of marijuana for adults 21 and older, it remains illegal federally.

Other concerns about state-federal interplay remain.

Svobodny told lawmakers about a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice memo that in the states that legalize and regulate marijuana and enforce their rules, the federal government will focus federal enforcement on issues such as keeping it away from minors, keeping it off federal property, preventing violence in cultivation and distribution, and other health and safety concerns, rather than legal possession or use in that state. The memo makes it clear that the federal government will not try to stop a legislative body from regulating marijuana use and distribution, he said.

Svobodny also said he didn't know whether a future administration would change the guidance in that memo.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said federal enforcement remains a subjective issue, and that the Legislature needs to be clear with residents that the substance is still illegal at the federal level.

Assistant Attorney General Kaci Schroeder listed other enforcement concerns with the bill, including how to measure possession of concentrates or hash oil once they are incorporated into edibles, and how to know whether marijuana at a given premises came from plants grown there, and thus is not subject to the 1-ounce limit.

The bill being discussed in the finance committee addresses previously stated concerns about the initiative's implementation, including that it has language for communities, including established villages, to opt out of having a marijuana industry, Schroeder said.

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