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House OKs drug bill

Five votes changed to pass 'methijuana bill'

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2006

Five legislators changing their votes were more than enough to reverse the House's previous rejection of a bill that aims to recriminalize marijuana possession and curb purchases of ingredients used in cooking methamphetamine.

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On Friday evening, a bill shot down by lawmakers last month was revived on the floor and passed with a vote of 24-14.

The vote came up a day after Gov. Frank Murkowski called a news conference and put the "methijuana" bill on his must pass list for the remainder of the session, which ends Tuesday night.

A week before the news conference, the governor told reporters he would dispatch his staff to change the minds of the few lawmakers needed to pass the bill.

House Speaker John Harris said he thinks it wasn't the governor twisting arms, but representatives cooling their ire over the Senate's move earlier this session to merge a marijuana bill with a methamphetamine bill. The marijuana portion was only heard in the House Judiciary Committee but the panel never voted on the bill.

"The Senate put two bills together, and a number of our members weren't happy with that process and now have softened their feelings a little bit," Harris said.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said the change of heart was less about time softening their positions and more about time being spent somewhere else.

"Maybe it was time spent in the governor's office, maybe it was time spent being persuaded with capital projects," said Berkowitz, but adding that he would not say who changed their votes to get money for their districts.

Harris said the governor may have influenced lawmakers, but he did not know for sure.

Juneau Republican Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch changed his vote after previously opposing HB 149. Others that flipped Friday night were Reps. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue; Pete Kott, R-Eagle River; Carl Moses, D-Unalaska.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, Juneau's Democrat in the House, voted against the bill again Friday.

Berkowitz expressed his frustration of the House bowing down to the Senate. The House is trying to write a version of a new oil tax plan with its own provisions, but some fear the Senate or the administration may bully the House into adopting their versions.

"To me this shows how distorted this process has become and why you have to get the oil tax into a special session so that legislators aren't subject to the arm twisting and the inducement and the threats that are part of a regular session," Berkowitz said.

HB 149 aims to get ingredients used in cooking methamphetamine out of the hands of home manufacturers. The bill would require pharmacies to place certain cold and allergy medicine containing pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed, behind the counter. Customers would need to sign a log book every time they make a purchase.

The marijuana portion of the bill would change the way marijuana possession is prosecuted in Alaska.

A series of Alaska Supreme Court rulings since 1975 have upheld the decision to allow residents to possess as much as 4 ounces of marijuana in their homes, saying that Alaskans have the right to keep private the amount of marijuana they smoke.

But according to the bill, those possessing more than 4 ounces would be charged with a Class C felony, which would carry a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Those with an ounce would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, with a possible sentence of up to a year in jail. Those possessing marijuana weighing less than an ounce would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

The bill also contains findings that say today's marijuana is more potent than the marijuana smoked in the 1970s, and the court should consider it a threat to society, mainly children.

"I think adults, personal private use, non-commercial growers, nobody is going to see a change in their lifestyle," said Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, the sponsor of the methamphetamine portion of the bill.

Ramras said the state would use the bill to concentrate on kids smoking and stopping commercial growers.

"It's already against the law for kids to consume and possess marijuana, and it's already against the law for adults to provide marijuana to kids," wrote Michael

Macleod-Ball, executive director, in a letter on Friday addressed to the attorney general.

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has repeatedly vowed to challenge the bill in court after the governor signs the bill into law.

"If this bill passes in its current form, we will bring suit to protect the scope of individual privacy in Alaska, and we will succeed in doing so," the letter concluded.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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