Thursday, February 02, 2006

Senate's drug bill tweaks die in Alaska State House

Anchorage Daily News

Rejected: Adding marijuana provision to meth-fighting effort unites opponents of both.

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."

By Richard Richtmyer


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