Medical marijuana amendment has little impact on Alaska

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to withdraw a budget amendment in place for the last three years that prohibits federal funds from being used to prosecute medical marijuana businesses in states where it is legal, but that has little impact on Alaska. Although the state legalized medical marijuana in 1998, no infrastructure was ever put in place. (Photo/Carolyn Kaster/AP)

States that have legal medical marijuana programs will remain free of federal law enforcement efforts if an amendment makes it into the final budget as it has for the past three years.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on July 27 approved what is known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to prohibit federal funds from being used against businesses in states with legal medical marijuana programs. Sen. Lisa Murkowski sits on the committee and supported the amendment.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., brought forth the amendment and it passed by a voice vote with broad Republican support.

Because Alaska didn’t develop a body of regulations around medical marijuana dispensaries, as other states did, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment doesn’t have as much relevancy here, said Bruce Schulte, the former chair of the Alaska Marijuana Control Board.

Since 1998, when 58 percent of Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 8, Alaska law has removed state-level criminal penalties on the use, possession and cultivation of medical marijuana. But no medical marijuana dispensary infrastructure was developed.

A study released by the national Marijuana Policy Project showed 1,042 medical marijuana cardholders in Alaska as of February 2017. That was down from the 1,132 counted the previous year in 2016 and 1,178 at the end of 2015.

It wasn’t until after the 2014 Ballot Measure 2 legalizing recreational use passed that the Alaska Marijuana Control Board was created by the Legislature in 2015 and the process of developing regulations began.

Shaping regulations for the first licenses took until June 2016 when the first businesses to be licensed were the cultivators. Over the next few months, dispensary and testing applicants were licensed and retail shops began opening in October 2016.

“A lot of states came about medical marijuana as an incremental step toward full legalization,” Schulte said Aug. 1. “Alaska did have a medical dispensary bill that was passed, but the Legislature chose not to implement it. That incremental step simply failed.”

Alaska Statute 17.37 addressed medical marijuana, a law that was never fully implemented, Schulte said. The new AS 17.38, dealing with legal recreational marijuana use does not make a distinction between medical and recreational and prohibits promotions claiming medical properties of cannabis.

“It’s always been a point of confusion. Some people were outright angry that we didn’t have medical marijuana dispensaries. My answer to that was that we didn’t need it if we could get full recreational use legalized,” Schulte said. “I would put it on the Legislature.”

The need for medical supervision over people who use THC or cannabis oil to treat chronic illnesses remains a part of the picture in today’s marijuana market.

For every one person on the registry, Schulte surmises, four or five more should be but chose not to go that route.

“Some are afraid to be listed on the medical marijuana registry. It might impact their ability to get a job. There are all sorts of stigma, social and legal. From a practical perspective it doesn’t do them a lot of good,” Schulte said.

Having a medical marijuana card doesn’t give a person any advantage when they walk into a dispensary. Alaska law specifies a limit of 5,600 milligrams of THC products per purchase, though there is no limit on the amount of cannabis oil that can be purchased at a time.

“To this extent they are friendly to the medical consumer. But then there is also in our regulation that a retail sale can’t promote the health benefits of marijuana,” Schulte said.

In the year after medical marijuana was approved by voters in 1998, only 24 people registered for medical marijuana cards. In the past 19 years, just more than 1,000 people per year obtain or renew medical marijuana cards.

An estimated 2.3 million Americans are registered as medical marijuana patients, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment protects the patients and the physicians by prohibiting the use of any federal funds for prosecutions targeting legal medical use.

As part of the 2018 fiscal year budget, the amendment now moves to the full Senate. The amendment, first enacted by Congress in 2014, is in effect for the current fiscal year.

In a June 13 letter to Senate President Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., June 13, Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that the amendment inhibits the Justice Department’s “authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act. … It would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime.

“The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

But lobbying groups working to change public policy such as NORML say Sessions’ stand places medical marijuana patients on footing with “illegal drug cartels.”

Further support of the legal medicinal use of marijuana came from the courts. Last August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the language in the amendment bars the federal government from taking legal action against any individual involved in medical marijuana-related activity if evidence that the defendant is in clear violation of state law is absent.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced a bill Aug. 1 to decriminalize marijuana by removing it as a Schedule One drug in the same category as heroin.

Both Murkowski and Rep. Don Young introduced bills to protect the 46 states that have legal medical marijuana or cannabidiol derived products.

They introduced parallel bills in the Senate and House titled the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act, or CARERS. The bills would amend federal law to allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies. Like Booker, Young has also introduced a bill to remove marijuana from its listing as a Schedule One substance in the Controlled Substances Act.

Meanwhile, since 1998, Alaska marijuana patients — though small in number — have seen progress in acceptance. ReLeaf Alaska, an Anchorage company that offers “professional and confidential medical cannabis evaluations and education” for patients who wish to acquire a medical marijuana card — claims on its website that some insurance companies in Alaska now cover the cost of a medical marijuana card.

It costs $25 for new medical marijuana card applicants and $20 for renewals. To receive the card, conditions must meet the state’s medical marijuana authorization eligibility requirements, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services’ website.

But physicians who treat medical disorders with the plant’s extractives believe there are more who want the card and medical guidance for use than are applying for it, according to an interview in Northwest Leaf with Dr. Michael Smith, a longtime cannabis activist who holds clinics in Alaska, California and Montana through Healing Center Medical Clinics.

A list of health conditions that are approved for medical marijuana on the state level that issues the medical cards are cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, or treatment for “chronic or debilitating disease or treatment of such diseases, which produces chronic or severe pain, nausea, seizures, including those that are characteristic of epilepsy and spasms such as those characteristic of multiple sclerosis.”

Doctors willing to talk on the record for news reporters in Anchorage are not plentiful. Only one physician responded to phone questions, recommending that people who have specific illnesses on the “list of conditions” approved by the state shouldn’t try to go it alone. But he refused to let his name be used for the article because of the “repercussions” to the traditional portion of his Anchorage practice.

One of the fears for physicians is any trouble that would damage their reputation with patients biased against marijuana use of any kind, said the physician who wished not to have his name used. In some cases, there is a concern about federal prosecution.

ReLeaf of Alaska and the Healing Center, which help patients obtain medical cards and give them examinations for $225 to $275 per visit, use a machine answering service. When finally reached by phone, the person answering at ReLeaf of Alaska hung up upon learning the call came from a Journal reporter. The Healing Center didn’t return phone calls.

“People are terrified of enforcement,” Schulte said. “One of the next things that has to be done is to unblock (the industry) from talking about the healing properties of cannabis.”

08/02/2017 - 12:13pm