- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Alaska lawmakers are grappling with how to decriminalize marijuana after voters in November approved a ballot initiative to legalize the substance.

The House and Senate judiciary committees are considering bills that would decriminalize marijuana in certain situations and create new laws, including making it illegal to provide pot to minors and adding the drug to the state’s existing open container laws.

But the bill being considered doesn’t make marijuana outright legal and it doesn’t stop police from arresting someone for possession. Instead, if an adult is arrested for possession and appears before a judge, then a section of the law kicks in that says the person can’t be convicted of a crime.

The so-called defense route was defended by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, who said during a hearing Monday that it seemed simpler than writing a bill that detailed every situation in which marijuana was illegal. Marijuana advocates have said that route undermines voters’ intent.

During the joint meeting of the judiciary committees, Deputy Public Defender Tracey Wollenberg agreed that it wasn’t what the voters approved and suggested using language from the initiative to make pot legal in state statutes.

Wollenberg said making someone appear in court leaves more to individual judges’ discretion, such as how much evidence is required, before letting someone off or convicting them.

McGuire and House Judiciary Chairwoman Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, indicated during the hearing that they may request another version of the bill, which makes it legal outright for someone 21 years or older to possess an ounce or less of marijuana.

Other lawmakers raised additional issues with the bill that could require amendments.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, pointed out that alcohol is allowed to be consumed in motorhomes when they are camping, and a similar provision may be added for marijuana.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, asked for a comparison of how minors are penalized in the current draft and for alcohol violations, and for those to be aligned.

The joint committee hearing will continue Wednesday, with invited testimony from proponents of legalization. McGuire has said she hopes the Senate bill will pass by Feb. 24, when the voter initiative goes into effect.

It must also be considered by the Senate Finance Committee before it goes to the floor for a vote.

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