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Guns and Spice: Senate Judiciary Committee tackles two controversial bills

By Rhonda McBride 7:44 AM March 6, 2014

Lawmakers hear testimony on firearms and synthetic marijuana bills

JUNEAU – Should students be allowed to carry firearms on campus?  Should the state impose hefty fines for those possessing “Spice,” a form of synthetic marijuana?

The Senate Judiciary Committee weighed the pros and cons of two separate bills Wednesday afternoon.

One of those was SB 176, which would allow college students to carry concealed weapons on campus. Sen. John Coghill of Fairbanks is one of the main sponsors. One of his legislative interns, Hans Rodvik, advocated for the bill.

“Twice as many children are killed playing football in school than are murdered by guns,” said Rodvik, citing a national study.

Brian Judy, a National Rifle Association expert based in Sacramento, weighed in via telephone and concurred.

“The facts are, accidents regarding firearms are relatively rare,” Judy said.

Judy told lawmakers they will hear, time after time, predictions of horrors that will never materialize.

Had students at Virginia Tech been allowed to carry weapons, Judy said, more might have survived a gunman’s rampage in 2007.

Sen. Donny Olson of Nome questioned the maturity of college students.

“Many of these students are transitioning from adolescence post-high school to adulthood, and therefore some of their brain functions may not be fully developed,” Olson said.

Judy countered by pointing out that many college students are being recruited for military service.

“So if they can be trusted to join our military and carry firearms in defense of our country, gosh, I think that we should trust them to carry a firearm in defense of themselves,” Judy said.

The Judiciary Committee also heard from Cesar Martinson, a member of the University of Alaska Anchorage Political Science Association.

“Article I, Section 19 of our state constitution is very clear that the state, nor any political subdivision of it, can violate our right to keep and bear arms,” Martinson said. “The university policy regarding conceal-carry on campus is in direct violation of the state constitution.”

“This bill is critical to reversing that policy,” said Martinson, who argued that college students are able to carry guns legally elsewhere in the state, so why not on campus?

The NRA expert also told lawmakers the University of Alaska’s weapons policies violate not only the state constitution, but the U.S. Constitution as well.

The president of the state’s university system, Patrick Gamble, was seated in the committee room, but did not speak out. At a recent hearing, Gamble testified against the bill. He’s expected to testify again next week.

Earlier in the afternoon, lawmakers took testimony on SB 173, which attempts to close some of the legal loopholes on synthetic drugs.

The measure’s main sponsor, Sen. Kevin Meyer, told lawmakers that some of the earlier bills the Legislature passed — which criminalized possession of the synthetic drug known as “Spice” — have not been effective, mainly because drug manufacturers get around the law by changing the recipe, which has made it even more dangerous.

Meyer said SB 173 has a different focus. It imposes fines for possession of Spice.

“It’s a quick, easy way for our police to go in and cite the kids who may have it,” Meyer said. “I’m thinking, the bigger target here is going to be the sellers.”

The bill is modeled on an ordinance the Anchorage Assembly passed in January.

If the measure is signed into law, it will impose a $500 fine per packet of the synthetic drug. The bill would also allow the state to seize Permanent Fund Dividends should fines go unpaid.

The hefty fine, Meyer said, is a disincentive to use Spice, especially for sellers who typically stock packages of synthetic drugs by the dozens.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, (D) Anchorage, wondered if some communities would consider this “state overreach.”

“Should this be something that we leave to the individual communities to decide, especially when we have Wasilla, a large community that just rejected a similar piece of legislation as this,” Wielechowski said.

Meyer said the drug is so dangerous that a state law is needed to address it.

“A lot of kids think it’s a cheap way to get a high or a buzz,” Meyer said. “And it must be OK, because it’s legally sold. Parents think its OK, because it’s legally sold. But in reality, it’s not OK.”

Anchorage police, hospital emergency rooms and social service agencies have all reported cases of bizarre, psychotic behavior from Spice users. The drug has also been implicated in seizures and believed to be highly unpredictable, if not deadly.

Meyer told lawmakers arrests only clog the jails and court system – yet seem to have little effect in reducing Spice use. So far, he said, Anchorage police believe the new strategy is helping.

Meyer said that while cities around the country have passed laws similar to SB 173, Alaska would be the first state to attempt to reduce Spice use through hefty fines.

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