Just what 2021 has in store for Alaska’s marijuana industry is anyone’s guess but Alaska Marijuana Industry Association Executive Director Lacy Wilcox says they’re prepared for just about anything.
When we talked with Wilcox in January, the Alaska Legislature had yet to convene and yet to determine just who’d be in charge of the House and Senate while on the federal level it was just confirmed that Democrats would be taking control of the U.S. Senate, potentially opening the door to massive changes for marijuana policy on the federal level.
With issues like the budget and the pandemic dominating attention at both levels, it’s not expected that marijuana policy will hit center stage and the industry has delayed a push for a state tax overhaul for the time being.
Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool, a member of the House Finance Committee during the 31st legislative session, said it’s going to be a tough sell for any legislation beyond the basics to get attention from the Alaska Legislature this year.
“No, the short answer is no. Especially with COVID, especially with limited mobility and people not being able to come into the Capitol to lobby for their particular bill or cause and us not wanting to linger any longer than we have to,” he said. “For us, having a massive deficit with a savings account that’s nearly depleted. … All these, big, big issues is going to suck all of the oxygen out of the room and I think once we do that there’ll be a big push to pass a budget and go home without introducing banking bills.”
Wilcox said that works for the industry, which is still discussing issues like an alternative tax system than the $50 per ounce tax levied at the cultivation level on most forms of cannabis as well as bigger issues about the future of the industry.
“They have a lot on their plate and don’t want to distract from that, however we’re definitely ready to be on the ready for legislation that may affect us,” Wilcox said.
She said one of the big unknowns is just what Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration may have in mind for the industry.
A rumor, which neither Alaska Cannabist nor Wilcox have been able to confirm, is that the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, and specifically its boards, could get folded into the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Such a change would need to be approved by the Legislature.
The governor floated such a proposal during the 31st Legislature, but it never got any traction. Wilcox said having regulators and a board that are well-versed in the industry is critical to maintaining its health.
“I hope it’s not true. In the same way there’s more important things to do, we also oppose that concept. It would be unfortunate if we had to go in and oppose legislation that’s not timely or affordable,” she said. “I don’t understand what it is they’d be trying to fix.”
On the federal level, there’s new hope that a Democratic Senate will usher in significant changes for the industry like easier access to banking and, potentially, a national effort to recognize and permit the state-driven industries. At least that’s the hope for Justin Strekal, the political director at NORML, a group advocating for legalizing possession of marijuana.
“Unfortunately, under the GOP Senate leadership, the MORE Act, the SAFE Banking Act, and many other important reform bills were dead on arrival. By contrast, Democratic leaders in the Upper Chamber — including Senators Schumer, Wyden, Booker, Merkley, Smith, Sanders and others — have already pledged publicly to debate and advance legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition via descheduling,” he said in a prepared statement following the Georgia runoff elections that handed Democrats the chamber. “Senator Schumer’s ascension to Majority Leader will mark the first time in US history that the upper chamber is led by a Senator who is openly calling for cannabis legalization.”
If legalization comes to pass on a federal level, Wilcox said it’ll be off to the races and Alaska will need to quickly act in order to ensure the Alaska industry can live as big business and mega farms get in on the green rush. Some have argued it’s a reason to cap the number of permits in order to defend Alaska’s market, but Wilcox said other measures such as tax breaks or other policies should be considered. That’s part of what she’s been discussing with people in the industry.
“It’s a shaky ground and it could change any minute. I could receive information from partners that work with federal lawmakers that says it’s happening quick and it’s at the very top of the agenda for the Senate. That’s going to speed up the way that we need to analyze and react. I think the background conversations are happening and how far we get and how fast we push, we might learn in the next couple weeks that we really need to amp up the conversation with legislators to protect these businesses. We might find out that it’s a priority but it’s not a priority in this next organization year of this new U.S. Senate. That might help us be a little more measured in the way that we approach this. I would really love to work with everyone in the industry to understand what they’re all thinking and feeling.”
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer in Anchorage. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.