JUNEAU - The Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday rejected a bill that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a crime.
The Senate added the marijuana provision to a House bill that was aimed at thwarting production of methamphetamine in home labs.
But the Senate also removed a key element of the methamphetamine part of the bill. And that raised concerns among several lawmakers who supported the original measure and drew objections from police agencies throughout the state.
House members rejected the Senate's changes 23 to 15.
"I thought we did some excellent work, bipartisan work, and it's come back as a Christmas tree," Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, said on the House floor before casting his vote against the revised bill.
"I believe the trunk of the Christmas tree is rotten now, and I'm not buying it," Crawford said.
The House last year, by a vote of 33-0, passed a bill, HB 149, that would have restricted the sale of certain over-the-counter cold medicines such as Sudafed that contain ingredients than can be used to make methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant.
It would have limited an individual's purchases of such drugs to about three regular-sized packages per month and require buyers to show identification and sign a logbook at the store, which would be made available to police.
The Murkowski administration has wanted to recriminalize marijuana, since the Alaska Supreme Court in 2004 ruled it legal for adults to possess up to 4 ounces of the drug at home under the state constitution's guarantee of citizens' strong right to privacy from government interference.
The governor has proposed legislation that would make possession of up to 4 ounces of pot a misdemeanor. Having more than 4 ounces would be a felony, a more serious crime.
Last month, the Senate Finance Committee merged Murkowski's marijuana bill, which he has called "must-pass legislation," with the House's methamphetamine bill.
But the Senate went a step further by stripping the requirement that drug sellers keep records on who is buying Sudafed and other medicines containing methamphetamine ingredients.
"There were a lot of good reasons to vote against it," said Michael W. Macleod-Ball, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, which opposes Murkowski's marijuana proposal.
By merging the bills, the Senate effectively united the opponents of each of them, he said.
Lawmakers on Wednesday gave several reasons for nixing the Senate's changes.
Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said the House bill was aimed primarily at shutting down "mom-and-pop" meth labs and that removing the requirement that retailers track the medicine sales made the bill useless for doing so.
"Without logbooks, I feel like the whole process fails," he said. "It does away with the most important component of dealing with mom-and-pop labs."
Police agencies in Anchorage, Palmer, Fairbanks and North Pole recently sent letters to legislators urging them to restore the record-keeping provision, which they said is central to their efforts to track down and close meth labs.
Other members who voted down the Senate's proposed changes cited the marijuana provisions, which representatives had not yet discussed in committee.
"If we're dealing with something that has significant constitutional issues, we need to have some hearings on this and have some evidence so we can vote on it intelligently," said Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage.
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, the House bill's primary sponsor, voted to accept the Senate's changes.
"I will pose a rhetorical riddle to this body," Ramras said on the House floor Wednesday. "What do 89 marijuana plants, a methamphetamine lab and a 2-year-old have in common? The answer ... would be they were all part of a bust in my community at the end of last week."
The House sent the bill back to the Senate, asking that its changes be withdrawn. If the Senate refuses, a conference committee of representatives and senators will try to agree on a bill that both chambers will pass.
Becky Hultberg, Murkowski's spokeswoman, said the governor is resolute about his marijuana bill and is willing to work with the conference committee.
"The governor is absolutely committed to having legislation on marijuana and methamphetamine this session, and we are very optimistic," she said. "The goal is a bill that protects our children and communities."
February 2, 2006 - Juneau Empire (AK)
House Rejects Marijuana-Meth Bill
Issue Remains Alive As It Goes to Conference Committee on Differences
By Andrew Petty
The Alaska House rejected on Wednesday a bill that aimsto penalize marijuana use and curb home manufacturing of methamphetamines.
But the bill is far from dead.
Last week, the Senate passed what began as a bill that would make it harder for meth cookers to buy over-the-counter drugs that are necessary ingredients in producing the drug.
To move two other bills dealing with marijuana and steroid use faster through the legislative process, the Senate combined several bills into one. It has since been nicknamed the "meth-ijuana" bill.
Because the House approved House Bill 149 last session, the bill must go through a conference committee to settle the differences.
Several Republican lawmakers joined the Democrats in defeating the Senate's version 15-23. Some said their "nay" vote was in protest of the Senate combining the bills. The marijuana legislation was only heard in one House committee and did not advance further.
"This is a bicameral Legislature," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. "We can't surrender the role we have just because it's easier."
Many representatives voted against the bill because it wasn't tough enough on meth. The House's original version called for pharmacists to keep log books that customers would need to sign when buying over-the-counter drugs containing pseudoephedrine, such as the cold medicine Sudafed.
Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, said there was an outcry from policemen across the state when they heard the provision was removed by the Senate.
"Those lists are substantial tools in the deterrent effort, as well as the seizure of methamphetamine labs and prosecution of their operators," wrote Lt. Thomas Remaley, of the Palmer Police Department, in a letter sent to Crawford's office.
Other states passed laws requiring the record-keeping, Remaley added.
Juneau's House delegation was split on the vote.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, voted against the measure and said the provisions concerning marijuana need to be heard in House committees and the amendments made to the meth portion are bad for police and pharmacy customers.
"It's not because I want to see marijuana or meth being used," Kerttula said.
Also, as an attorney, Kerttula said she doubts the bill is strong enough to overturn a 31-year-old Alaska Supreme Court ruling that said state residents can possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana under a right to privacy granted in the Alaska Constitution.
Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, who voted in support of the bill, said legislation on meth is needed as soon as possible.
"My hope is to get some strong measures for meth on the books," he said.
The three members appointed to the House conference committee all said they will use the opportunity to reinsert the provision about log books.
Crawford said he doubts the conference committee will bust the bill into separate parts dealing with each drug, like several Democrat lawmakers are suggesting. The committee will likely have two Republicans and one Democrat from each chamber.
House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the committee would probably not change any language that deals with marijuana. The bill calls for making possession of marijuana up to 4 ounces a misdemeanor and above 4 ounces a felony.
If the bill is passed and signed into law, Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli said the Department of Law will use the bill to try to overturn the Supreme Court ruling. Guaneli said the department would make an arrest and use the case to challenge the court, hoping new findings in the bill will be used as evidence to overturn the historic ruling.
Coghill said the first conference committee meeting could be 10 to 15 days away.
Differences Between The House And Senate For House Bill 149:
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