Sitka Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt was appointed to the Alaska Marijuana Control Board by Governor Bill Walker this month (May, 2018). And while he’s dealing with a major opioid and methamphetamine resurgence in Sitka, he wants to keep moving the needle on pro-marijuana legislation.
The Marijuana Control Board is the entity that approves cannabis dispensary permits and develops laws and regulations on cannabis at the state level. Jeff Ankerfelt says he’s got a lot of catching up to do.
“I’m still learning about the industry and the regulation associated with it,” Ankerfelt says. “It’s very interesting to me, so I appreciate the opportunity the governor has given me.”
There are 5 seats on the board — two cannabis industry representatives, one health care professional, and one representative for rural communities. The fifth position is reserved for someone in law enforcement, and its seen some turnover in recent months.
Governor Walker’s most recent appointee, Travis Welch, resigned when he lost his job as a North Slope police officer. Welch had replaced Soldotna’s police chief Peter Mylarnik who Ankerfelt says resigned in January after a shift at the federal level.
“Once the Trump administration changed their position on marijuana, he felt conflicted between his role as a municipal police officer in Alaska and the rules from the federal government and from what I understand resigned.”
Ankerfelt joined the Sitka Police Department in 2014. Before he moved to Southeast, he was working as a deputy police chief in Brooklyn Park Minnesota. As a longtime law enforcement officer, Ankerfelt says he’s seen the consequences and effects of the ‘war on marijuana’ and doesn’t want to repeat those mistakes.
“I think there are just incredible opportunities for people, particularly on the medicinal side of this, that can provide relief to people through the use of marijuana products.That’s what brings me really to my interest in this position in Alaska,” Ankerfelt says. “I want to help with the successful implementation of these rules and create the opportunity for, you know, people to feel better.”
One issue the board may be facing this year that Ankerfelt thinks could be contentious: on-site consumption at dispensaries in specially designed, ventilated social rooms. Ankerfelt says he isn’t opposed to the idea, and while he recognizes there could be health concerns he will consider, he doesn’t see “on-site consumption” as a major public safety concern.
“By comparison, look at bars where alcohol is served. I’ve been assaulted many, many, many times by people that are drunk, but I’ve never had anybody on marijuana try to kill me,” he says. “Every police officer would tell you that.”
As for how Sitka has changed since marijuana was legalized, you might think decriminalizing cannabis would mean less work for the Sitka Police Department. But that hasn’t been the case.
“About the same time this was becoming legal and generating revenue for community programs and things like that, we had an explosion, an absolute crisis of opioids, methamphetamine, and other illegal drugs,” says Ankerfelt. “We made 260 arrests last year, and we’re on pace to make 800 this year.”
Ankerfelt doesn’t think marijuana has contributed to the spike in crime. If anything he thinks there’s evidence that legal access to cannabis could help curb some problems associated with opioid addiction.
“I’m interested in its value in helping people come off of drugs more successfully,” he says. “I’ve talked to, my anecdotal stuff, talked to some of the retailers in town. They’ve seen people come in who are suffering and don’t want to use meth or heroin, they want to use marijuana to placate or relive their suffering. I’m really interested to see what the science is behind that.”
Ankerfelt knows that some of his peers may not be on the same page, but he’s hopeful that in his role on the board, he can foster more open communication.
“I’m hoping that if some other law enforcement leaders disagree with me on this point that we have a chance to talk about it,” he says. “I just want to move the dialogue forward a little more successfully in the state of Alaska.”
Ankerfelt sees a backlash following passage of Alaska criminal reform bill
— By Robert Woolsey, KCAW
Jeff Ankerfelt is among those in the law enforcement community who think Senate Bill 91 — signed into law by Gov. Walker in 2016 — has backfired in some important respects.
While the controversial bill made some important reforms in the state’s criminal justice system, it also created new problems.
Ankerfelt believes that raising the bar for arrest for many drug-related crimes has returned people to the street, who might otherwise receive treatment in custody.
He discussed this paradox in a presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce (5-30-18).
Since not being able to hold people for a period of time, what we’re seeing is people getting sicker and sicker on the street. So we’re arresting people over and over for the same possession events, but they’re not in jail with us anymore. So they come in with us for just a few minutes, we go through the booking process, and then they’re gone. It actually takes five misdemeanor convictions now for possession before you get some sort of criminal sentence. Now there’s one theory that says we shouldn’t be criminalizing the use of drugs and things like that — and I couldn’t agree more. But absent some alternatives, the most effective means to get people the help they needed was arrest. Intervention.
Ankerfeldt said that SB 91 intended to fund increased drug treatment programs with revenue from Alaska’s budding cannabis industry, but that hasn’t happened yet. So there’s currently little disincentive for people to stay off drugs, “and it’s killing them,” Ankerfelt said.