This story has been updated to clarify that the Senate vote wasn’t against the Sense of the Senate itself, but against bringing it up for a vote at all. Sen. Gardner attempted to bring it off the table for a vote again during the Thursday floor session, which also failed.
On Feb. 12 Sen. Berta Gardner brought forward a Sense of the Senate, asking her colleagues to join her in calling Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent actions on marijuana unacceptable federal overreach that infringed on the will of Alaska voters to legalize the industry in 2014.
The motion was tabled by the Republican-led Senate Majority, where it sat until the Wednesday floor session when Senate President Pete Kelly brought it back just so it could be tabled once again.
Gardner’s concerns, he said, would be fixed with a new resolution that had just been introduced.
“The issue is we would provide a bill that was in committee. SJR 15 kind of meets our obligation for what you and I discussed,” he said on the floor. “It’s important that we keep our word and you have a bill in committee now.”
Emphasis should have been put on the words “kind of” because the resolution falls so laughably short of the message that Gardner hoped to send to the feds, which she had introduced back in February in order to give to U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan during their addresses.
Gardner’s motion would have set the Senate against Sessions’ decision to revoke the the Obama-era Cole Memo that allowed states that had legalized marijuana freedom from federal prosecution. It stated, “the Senate believes the decision is Federal overreach that infringes upon states’ rights, violates the will of Alaskan voters and damages a promising young Alaskan industry.”
Instead she’ll get Senate Joint Resolution 15, authored by the Senate Judiciary Committee (chaired by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole), which seems to actually support Sessions’ decision. Coghill said the Cole Memo contained “a lot of debatable issues.”
“If we’re going to stand up for state’s rights, we need to do it on the law and not on a memo,” he said.
Kelly’s version of keeping his word to Gardner is a resolution that begins by calling the Cole Memo an example of when “the rule of law has been neglected or undermined in ways that directly affect the state” and calls for the firing of federal officials who don’t follow the law. Much of the resolution returns to the GOP’s anti-legalization argument that because marijuana is illegal on a federal level the feds were wrong in giving states like Alaska any leeway in the decision.
The closest the resolution comes to saying anything positive about Alaskans voting in favor of legalizing marijuana is, “though the federal law is clear, the marijuana industry in the state has blossomed because of reliance on the Cole Memorandum by private parties, and the societal effect of that reliance is still unknown.”
That’s not what Gardner asked for.
Here’s the other sorts of messages about marijuana included in the resolution:
- “Far too often, the rule of law has been neglected or undermined in ways that directly affect the state, including by actions of federal government officials in the instances of the issuance by then Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole of a memorandum on “Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement”
- It says states were “seeking potentially lucrative marijuana revenue” when passing the marijuana laws, ignoring any other reasons for voters to have overwhelmingly approved the 2014 ballot resolution.
- It likens the Cole Memo to “the practice by unelected federal agency employees of drafting and issuing guidance documents that have not been subject to public process is not lawful.
- It says the Alaska Legislature “urges the federal government to discontinue taking or failing to take certain actions without regard for the law, as these practices have resulted in damage to the citizens of the state.”
The resolution also, for some inexplicable reason, includes issues relating to the Tongass National Forest, which was the only thing that Senate Democrats were able to glean about the resolution before Kelly called for the vote to kill Gardner’s Sense of the Senate. That’s because Gardner and her Democratic colleagues were not afforded an opportunity to read the resolution.
Gardner, having just read the synopsis of the bill, had only this to say before the vote:
“I don’t think gets to heart of what I want,” she said. “This is different.”
Why it matters
At the end of the day resolutions passed by the Alaska Legislature don’t amount to a ton. They’re essentially strongly worded letters that get added to binders of support documents at the federal level.
Instead, what is particularly problematic about this is the process and message. At a time that Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche is calling for civility and respect in the Alaska Legislature, there’s very little that’s respectful about the way the Senate Majority has handled this. The resolution was written without input by Gardner, doesn’t represent what Gardner wanted and wasn’t even given to Gardner for review before it was introduced.
All the while, Senate President Kelly acted as if he and the Senate Majority was doing her a favor by keeping their promise to bring up her Sense of the Senate (to only vote it down) and offering her a resolution that “kind of” meets the Senate’s obligation.
At the very least, the Senate’s inability to stand up for the will of Alaskan voters shouldn’t have much impact on Alaska’s congressional delegation’s attitude towards marijuana. Even though none of the congressional delegation supported the 2014 vote, each has vowed to stand up and fight to protect Alaska voters’ decision to legalize.