Alcohol, cannabis investigators locked out of public safety info network

  • Greatland Ganja owner Leif Abel displays fledgling cannabis clones for Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office officer Joe Bankowski (background) to tally on the state’s tracking system. Inspectors with AMCO lost access to state public safety databases in December after a legal analysis determined the office does not meet the definition of a criminal justice agency. (Photo/File/AJOC)

The enforcement officers charged with inspecting and investigating cannabis and alcohol business licenses have lost access to the statewide public safety information network, and that is hampering their ability to do their jobs according to a top official.

On Dec. 1, the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, lost access to the Alaska Public Safety Information Network and the Alaska Records Management System, two public records systems that the investigators had relied on for years to check criminal history and records in relation to license investigations.

The loss of the access prevents the investigators from doing their jobs fully under statute and compromises their safety, according to a report from AMCO Executive Director Erika McConnell to the Marijuana Control Board.

“AMCO investigators make scheduled and unscheduled inspections of licensed facilities to respond to complaints or tips about unlicensed activity, bootlegging, over service, under-age drinking, and other activities that threaten public health and safety,” McConnell wrote.

“With no access to these databases, the investigators may go to interview someone who is subject to a warrant or possibly armed and dangerous, without having any warning or information. In the worst-case scenario, AMCO investigators could interview a wanted individual without ever knowing there was a warrant for that person, and the person could go on to commit new crimes.”

AMCO employs a number of investigators to respond to complaints from the public and to conduct licensing inspections and investigations. Prior to 2014, the office only regulated alcohol licenses, ranging from breweries in downtown Anchorage to bars in remote communities; after voters chose to legalize cannabis for recreational use, regulating cannabis was added to the office’s responsibilities.

The office was given 30 days’ notice by the Department of Public Safety. In a letter to McConnell, Alaska State Troopers Acting Director Major Andrew Greenstreet explained that in the past, DPS had determined AMCO to be a criminal justice agency under federal and state statutes.

“However, after further consultation and analysis with the Department’s General Counsel and Records Bureau Chief … DPS has determined that AMCO does not meet the statutory definition of a ‘criminal justice agency,’” Greenstreet wrote.

State statute defines a criminal justice agency as an agency that “devotes a substantial portion of its budget to a criminal justice activity under a law, regulation or ordinance,” which AMCO does not, Greenstreet wrote.

Most of AMCO’s work is regulatory in nature rather than criminal justice-related. He added that if AMCO employees need specific information, they can communicate with specific DPS employees to retrieve it.

Greenstreet did not mention marijuana issues specifically in his letter, but McConnell drew the connection in her report. DPS fears the Federal Bureau of Investigation may revoke the state’s access to criminal justice information due to marijuana regulatory activity because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, she wrote.

While DPS is still working with AMCO to provide the information, it seems unnecessary based on activity in other states and doesn’t match the authority given to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and the Marijuana Control Board in statute.

During the meeting, she told the board that the change has implications broader than marijuana and alcohol business regulation.

“There’s lots of ways in which the removal of these tools from our use is bad for public safety, bad for investigator safety and bad for the safety of other law enforcement officers,” she said. “I’m not so much talking about investigations of our licensees — we’re talking about particularly criminal investigations.”

Enforcement officers sometimes have to investigate remote locations. They don’t have access to law enforcement radio networks to signal warnings or call for help, and they may not have access to public safety information for several days while communicating through DPS, McConnell wrote.

AMCO also used the system to manage its enforcement cases. Without access, the office will have to purchase a new software system or find workarounds.

Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer and Alcoholic Beverage Control Board chairman Bob Klein have sent a letter on the topic to Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Julie Anderson, who deferred action until after Dunleavy’s budget was announced on Feb. 13.

AMCO may lose its investigative unit entirely from within the department as all statewide investigators move to the Alaska Department of Law.

The change comes after Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order Feb. 13 to establish a Statewide Investigator Unit within the Department of Law and form a task force to consolidate all state investigators into it.

If they are moved to a statewide department, they may have access to APSIN and ARMS there, McConnell wrote.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
02/27/2019 - 10:52am

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