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Anchorage Assembly passes Spice ban, puts port management, election questions on hold

Suzanna Caldwell
Anchorage lawmakers agreed to try a new tack in the municipality's fight against synthetic marijuana and other designer chemical drugs, based on a fix that has already shown promise in Bangor, Maine. Loren Holmes photo

When Shawn Williams found a man passed out outside of his downtown business, he was surprised to find out the cause was the drug Spice.

He was even more surprised that the man, whom he found lying face-down on the street, had only smoked the substance 15 minutes before.

Williams, the owner of Five Star Entertainment, was one of a handful of people who testified in support of an Anchorage Assembly ordinance that would ban synthetic drugs such as “K2”, “bath salts” and Spice. Others described the unpredictability and violence people on the drug exhibit.

“They get groggy and then violent,” said Ed Larravie. “It's a snap. It affects different people in  different ways. This is not like marijuana. It's more like meth.”

The ordinance was approved unanimously, with only Assembly member Adam Trombley absent. With its passage, Anchorage becomes the second community in the U.S. to take the unique approach of penalizing what the drug's packaging doesn't say instead of trying to deal with the ever-changing chemical makeup of the drug.

The ordinance goes into effect immediately. Police Chief Mark Mew said police would right away go about notifying the 23 businesses that sell the drug about the new law and give them time to dispose of the products. 

“We're not going to wait very long,” Mew said. 

The proposed ordinance would make synthetic drugs illegal because their packaging and stated intended uses are misleading. The same approach has been used to some success in Bangor, Maine, though the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has questioned whether the law as written is too broad in scope.

Anchorage Municipal Prosecutor Cynthia Franklin testified using a 31-ounce jar of bath salts she purchased at Walmart, and compared it to a 1-gram container of the drug “bath salts” that had been confiscated from the Anchorage Safety Center. She explained that under the new law, she'll be able to go to the court and show the difference between the two, and how one is clearly not being used for its intended purpose.

The ordinance only makes civil penalties for the drugs, which are constantly being changed by manufacturers to avoid the the Federal Analog Act. Anyone in possession of the drug would be charged $500 per packet, vial or tube. Violations would be handled in a manner similar to a parking ticket, Mew said. Non-payment could mean potential garnishment of Permanent Fund Dividends, and those fined would not be eligible for a court-appointed attorney.

Both Mew and Franklin noted that the ordinance will not do enough remove Spice from the streets, but it's a step in the right direction.

“This is a piece of the puzzle. This is not the entire answer,” Franklin said.

It wasn't the only policing measure looked at by the Assembly, which also voted to approve a $1.9 million contract that will help install in-car video cameras for all police vehicles in the municipality.

The project is almost four years to the day in the making. So far only 17 patrol vehicles are equipped with video cameras, according to Mew. The award from the Assembly will help APD move forward in installing 340 cameras in the city's patrol vehicles. Mew said the state-of-the-art cameras, which can also record sound surrounding the vehicle, should be installed by spring of this year.

Election move postponed for ethics ruling

The Assembly clarified rules regarding elections, including how to deal with voter concerns. Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson suggested giving the clerk more time to fulfill records requests that would give citizens information regarding elections in order to decide whether making an appropriate challenge is necessary. Currently, the clerk must respond within five days. Gray-Jackson argued that wasn't enough and asked for nine.

The Assembly also dealt with other rules about when to set elections. Municipal elections are now held in April, but a proposal by Assembly member Chris Birch would move them to November, to coincide with statewide elections. Despite testimony strongly opposing the move, the Assembly postponed voting on the measure, hoping that more time will give the ethics board a better chance to make a ruling on the proposal.

“(Moving the elections) reeks as an abuse of public process, to avoid having a vote when you don't want to have it,” said Vince Beltrami, Alaska AFL-CIO.

While there was some debate over whether the ethics board had already discussed the issue in depth, it was decided that more discussion was needed, and the Assembly voted 6-4 to move the issue to Feb. 11.

Birch has said he intends his ordinance to encourage greater participation in local elections. November elections generally see higher turnout of Anchorage voters -- up to 60 percent during presidential elections -- versus the 20 percent who come out routinely for April municipal elections.

The ethics board has had its concerns as well. In December it noted that if passed, the ordinance would extend the terms of current Assembly members by seven months. The ethics board also ruled that the election date change would give Assembly members seven additional months of pay -- about $14,500. The board suggested members change the ordinance to go into effect after all of the current members' terms expire.

Port management approval on hold

The Assembly made no moves to formally approve chosen contractor CH2M Hill as the new project manager of the Port of Anchorage expansion project, and instead deferred voting on the project until Feb. 11 in order to take more time for discussion in a work session. The decision would allocate $30 million over five years to have the firm lead the city's troubled port expansion project.

There was little discussion during the meeting on reasons for moving the decision, only about taking more time to discuss the management. The city is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the firm over work done by contractor VECO prior to CH2M Hill's purchase of that company in 2007. Assembly Chair Ernie Hall cited that lawsuit when he instructed Assembly members to avoid contacting CH2M Hill in the interim.