State of marijuana: Pre-legalization convictions plague Alaska residents, but a new bill could offer relief

Convictions for marijuana-related offenses from before legalization continue to impact many Alaska residents, but a state new bill could offer relief.
Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 6:28 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It was the smell of the marijuana growing inside the garage that tipped off neighbors about the 33 marijuana plants being grown inside a small white house in a neighborhood in Wasilla.

“I’m not some big time kind of a drug dealing operation or something, I’m just a stoner. I smoke a lot.”

Alaska’s News Source is not identifying the man who was arrested in the drug bust because of his concerns about his career. For clarity, he is being called Tom.

He said the raid happened in 2014, before marijuana was legalized in Alaska. Like many others arrested for crimes related to cannabis before it legalized, Tom is faced with the lasting impacts of that arrest as he moves forward in life. As states with legalized marijuana grapple with how to reconcile their criminal justice systems’ previous treatment of cannabis with the drug’s present-day reality, one Alaska legislator has introduced a bill that would make marijuana-related convictions from before legalization confidential.

The arrest

It started when, Tom says, police came “busting down” the doors.

“They had their guns drawn ... screaming expletives and saying, ‘you better open that door right now,’” Tom said.

He said that for the next three years, costing about $60,000, he fought the charges. Ultimately he pleaded down to three charges and served almost five months in prison.

“There’s people in prison for life, to this day, that were selling marijuana. I mean that was it, and that’s wrong,” Tom said. “Marijuana shouldn’t have been illegal in the first place.”

Tom is one of the many Alaskans who have been convicted and served time in prison for possessing marijuana before it was legalized in 2015 by a voter initiative. Legalization allowed adults ages 21 and older to possess and use marijuana or cannabis products.

Alaska’s first retail marijuana store opened in October 2016.

As more states adopt legalized marijuana, people are confronting the issue of fairness: A product that is now legal is the same substance that once brought criminal records and jail time.

“Alaska spends a ridiculous amount of money on prisons,” said Megan Edge with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. “That’s not money that’s coming out of nowhere, that’s money that we as taxpayers are paying for. And, does a simple possession charge, is that enough to ruin somebody’s life?”

According to Edge, since 2018, marijuana possession charges accounted for 34% all new drug charges going into the system. Additionally, some Alaskans remain blocked from employment and housing opportunities because of previous marijuana possession convictions, from before legalization, that would not be a crime today.

According to the sponsor statement for a bill introduced this year, Legislative Research found that more than 700 Alaskans were convicted of low-level marijuana crimes between 2007 and 2017.

The 2021 Annual Drug Report from the Alaska State Troopers reports there were 176 marijuana-related drug seizures last year.

A potential solution

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democrat from Sitka, has introduced a bill that would make minor marijuana convictions, which happened before legalization, confidential. House Bill 246 says “these records would automatically be removed from Court View. The records would also be removed from some background checks administered by the Department of Public Safety, if requested by the convicted individual.”

The bill clarifies that the convictions can only be removed if the person was not charged with other crimes during the same arrest.

“The piece of legislation would effectively make marijuana convictions for a simple possession, nothing more than that, no dealing, nothing too scandalous, removed from public view,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Before legalization, the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police spoke out against legalization, writing, “It is estimated that Alaskan police departments will have combined costs of nearly $6,000,000 to respond to immediate needs which will arise from legalization of marijuana. These costs include necessary training of police officers to establish drug impairment based on symptomology because there are no roadside tools like breathalyzers for testing marijuana usage, and for increasing the number of School Resource Officers (SROs) in communities to educate teens about the dangers of drug use.”

Asked how the organization felt about bill before lawmakers today, Chief Steve Dutra from the North Pole Police Department said in an email, “AACOP has not taken a position marijuana since the legalization and any position we would take would have to come before the board. I can certainly place the issue on the agenda and see if the board wishes to take a position.”

Aaron Sadler, communications director for the Alaska Department of Law, also wrote in an email, “We have no position on the bill.”

Of note, Edge says, is the issue of who faces marijuana convictions and charges.

“If you look at that from a racial perspective, Black and brown people were about twice as likely as white people to be incarcerated and charged with those crimes although the consumption of marijuana was about the same as white people,” Edge said.

According to a 2020 report by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, 10% of adults who live in Alaska had used marijuana in 20 of the previous 30 days in 2017. This is characterized as “heavy use.” The state says marijuana use in Alaska is also higher than the national average.

Alaska’s history with legal marijuana is complex and long. According to the state health department report, Alaska was one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana in 1975. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that home-use was protected by the Alaska Constitution’s right to privacy.

Even today, the rules are still in flux. It wasn’t until early in 2019 when Alaska was the first state to create an “onsite use” license.

Tom says at the time of his arrest, he had 33 plants. He says he knew what he was doing was not legal.

“I’ve sold some in my life, you know ... and I suppose that’s not fair that I don’t pay taxes,” Tom said. “Millions and millions of people have done the same thing. I don’t feel that I’m a bad person for it, although I did break the law.”

Today he has six plants growing under lights in a room beside his kitchen. In a few days he’ll change the conditions and force the plants to flower.

“These will take eight weeks to flower and I’ll get 6-8 ounces,” he said.

Tom said he and a few friends will put the marijuana in smoothies. He says one of his favorite ways to consume is to put marijuana in butter and melt it over mashed potatoes.

“I grow a crop like this about three times a year,” Tom said.

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