Alcohol, marijuana officers still blocked from public safety networks

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state that the chairs of the alcohol and marijuana control boards sent a letter to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, who sent a letter to the state Attorney General.

Enforcement officers with the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office are still struggling to work around the loss of access to the state’s public safety information networks.

The office employs a number of enforcement personnel to inspect licensed premises and to investigate potential violations. The majority of the office’s work is in alcohol licenses, though marijuana licensees take up an increasing portion of staff time.

Until December 2018, the enforcement staff members were considered peace officers and had access to the Alaska Public Safety Information Network and the Alaska Records Management System. However, last fall, the Alaska State Troopers informed AMCO that its enforcement officers would no longer have access to those networks because they were not considered peace officers. DPS could provide the information, but the AMCO staff would be locked out.

About five months later, the AMCO staff members are still struggling to get the information they need to conduct investigations, said Executive Director Erika McConnell.

“Some information has been provided in a timely manner,” she told the Marijuana Control Board during its meeting May 1. “Some requests have been ignored or go unfilled after repeated requests. This continues to be a frustration for the office.”

The state provides access to the networks to criminal justice agencies and to peace officers. It is a debatable point whether AMCO is a “criminal justice agency,” McConnell said, but enforcement staff have always been considered peace officers.

She said the reason the interpretation has been changed is still unclear. Though the chairs of both the Alcohol and Marijuana Control boards wrote a letter to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development requesting that he send a letter to Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson requesting a clarification, there has been no response as of the May 1 meeting, said Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer.

Division of Enforcement Director James Hoelscher noted that the lack of access hampers the enforcement officers at AMCO despite the fact that the departments have the same goal. The investigators within AMCO have police backgrounds for inspection purposes.

“It’s been burning — it’s been something in the back of my head for quite some time now and caused significant issues and questions,” he said “In my opinion, it is very clear that we are peace officers. What it boils down to is you have enforcement who is required to enforce Title 4 and Title 17 and we have been hamstrung on almost every level of the way to do that thing.”

The Department of Public Safety did not reply to a request for comment as of press time.

Impacts of legalization examined

Meanwhile, AMCO is working on a data-sharing project of its own with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Health. As part of the plan to legalize recreational cannabis in Alaska, the Legislature set up an excise tax with 25 percent going to marijuana education and treatment programs.

The DHSS is working on issuing grants to promote youth education and substance abuse prevention, but as part of its education programming wants to conduct monitoring on the effects of marijuana legalization in the state, according to an outline submitted to the Marijuana Control Board.

“Surveillance of youth and adult populations monitor trends in knowledge, awareness, attitudes, behaviors and use in the population,” the outline states. “We have incorporated marijuana-specific questions in our existing surveys to get a sense of how these attitudes and behaviors may change over time. Data from these surveys informs public health activities, providing the evidence behind evidence-based approaches to changing behaviors.”

Part of the system for tracking commercial cannabis involved serial numbers for each plant, known as the Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance, or METRC. DHSS wants to use the data there to track retail sales to see what types of products Alaskan adults are buying, while protecting licensee information.

According to a draft data use agreement, the division wants information such as the price per usable gram, the value of sales, the number of transactions, the sales by product type, the average percentage of THC per gram and the number of sales by product type, among other data points.

Eliza Muse, the acting director of the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, told the Marijuana Control Board that the division is keeping an eye on how use is affecting health of the Alaska population at large.

“We’re also monitoring population health status to identify trends and potential health outcomes related to marijuana use,” she said. “We’re tracking data points such as marijuana-impaired driving or motor vehicle crashes, calls to our poison control hotline related to accidental ingestion, tracking emergency room treatment for children and the number of people entering treatment with marijuana identified as the primary substance of concern.

“I do want to say that we have a lot of data points pre-legalization and post-legalization and we are not seeing an increase in any of those areas right now.”

The Marijuana Control Board plans to review the data use agreement with DHSS at its July meeting.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/10/2019 - 8:21am

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