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The State of Medical Marijuana in Alaska
2020 Grade: C
2019-2020 Improvements and Recommendations
2019 saw Alaska become the first state to permit onsite consumption at cannabis retail facilities, and several retailers were authorized to conduct this new business activity in January of 2020. Beyond that important change not much changed for patients in Alaska since the publication of our last report.4 The State board expanded on their previous establishment of sampling and testing regulations from 2018 by assigning themselves an oversight role for testing facilities in March of 2020.5 Accountability for those testing cannabis products can be helpful to the reliability of medicine for patients, as there is a decreased risk of an individual lab falsifying results for financial compensation from a producer. Curbside pickup and telemedicine were made available as an option to patients as a response to COVID-19, and those were the Marijuana Control Board’s only 2020 modifications.6 As lawmakers prepare for the 2021 legislative session ASA recommends making modifications to Alaska’s medical cannabis program to provide employment protections for patients, expand the number of plants registered patients are permitted to grow at home, and implement measures incentivizing or requiring cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and retailers to produce and make available to patients specific medical cannabis and cannabis products designed for medical applications.
Safe access to medical cannabis was first approved by 58 percent of Alaska voters through Measure 8 in 1998. In June of 1999, Alaska lawmakers approved SB 94, which modified the law created by Measure 8 to require medical cannabis patients to register with the state health department and limited the amount of cannabis that they and their caregivers could legally possess. Under the law, any patient with a valid registry card may legally use cannabis for medicinal purposes, and all patients and caregivers must enroll in the state registry and possess a valid identification card to be legally protected. Patients or their caregivers may possess up to one ounce of usable cannabis and cultivate up to six cannabis plants (three mature, three immature), and may also possess paraphernalia associated with growing or consuming cannabis for medical use.
In 2014, 53 percent of Alaska voters approved the creation of an adult-use commercial cannabis program via Measure 2, allowing for the first time the creation of a legal retail cannabis access system for patients and adult-use consumers. Final adult-use program regulations were issued in 2016 with the first legal Alaska cannabis retail facility opening in November of that year.
Enrollment in Alaska’s program has been steadily declining since its peak in 2015 when the program had 1773 patients. As of the writing of this report, 404 patients remain registered as medical cannabis patients in Alaska. This representation is indicative in a steady drop since cannabis became legal for all adults in 2015 and the most severe case of that trend.7 While Alaska maintains laws permitting local governments to ban commercial cannabis activity over ASA’s strong objections, many local governments in the state have authorized cannabis businesses to operate within their jurisdictions.
The most significant changes to Alaska’s program during this period authorized consumers to consume cannabis on-site at the place of purchase in 2019, and the promulgation of new sampling and testing regulations issued in 2018. On-site consumption can be helpful for patients who live in subsidized housing or are otherwise prevented from consuming their medicine on the property where they reside, and robust sampling and testing requirements are critical to ensuring consumer safety and product quality. Alaska also certified some technical changes to ownership regulations in 2018. It should be noted that Alaska’s onsite consumption program is subject to local government approval.
Surveyed patients in Alaska report that medical cannabis is too expensive. In addition, surveyed patients felt that dispensaries have been failing to promote medical products and provide only a limited number of strains of cannabis. They also expressed frustration that there are no protections from employment discrimination. Some surveyed patients would like to be able to cultivate more cannabis plants at home to defray the high cost of medical cannabis products, as health insurance plans do not extend coverage to cannabis as a treatment option.