Assembly acts on Spice, speeding and screens

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz poses with students after a unanimous vote to restore the Youth Commission. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz poses with students after a unanimous vote to restore the Youth Commission. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

The Anchorage Assembly passed a measure giving law enforcement more options combating the synthetic drug spice. First responders and city officials have called the months-long outbreak “unsustainable,” but few believe the measure is a silver bullet.

Anchorage already passed a measures to combat Spice in 2014–aimed at getting shops to selling it over the counter. The new law updates the legal mechanisms for charging spice-related crimes.

Police Chief Chris Tolley supports the measure, and said his officers will have discretion in terms of who they go after, but the point is building larger cases instead of focusing on street-level users.

“The goal in this, bottom line, is to find out, identify those individual who are distributing and or manufacturing, and putting a stop at the source,” Tolley said after the vote.

First responders have played a largely reactive role dealing with health emergencies among spice users. City Prosecutor Seneca Theno told the Assembly that until law enforcement can get more information on where Spice is coming from and who’s selling it there’s relatively little they can do to stop the drug from getting to the streets.

The unanimously approved measure means the municipality now treats making, selling, and possessing spice as misdemeanors. Only state law can set felony offenses.

The Assembly also adopted measures set to affect area drivers. But there is disagreement about whether the policies are more about safety, or a balanced budget.

The municipality is changing how they penalize using a screen device while driving. Basically, texting or navigating an app while your car is in motion–that’s now a ticketable offense, costing $500. The violation used to be a misdemeanor, which is more serious, but meant it usually got dropped before it left the court.

It’s not the only infraction that got a change. The Assembly also voted on a wide-ranging update to the fines and fees the city collects–everything from speeding tickets to noise complaints. The fine schedule has been flat since 2001, and the mayor’s administration has said the changes correct for inflation.

But the Administration also balanced its budget anticipating that modest bump in revenues. And for the four members of the Assembly that voted against measure, like Bill Evans of South Anchorage, getting money matters mixed with public safety strategies is tricky.

“If we put the cart before the horse and we start thinking about revenues first, then it distorts the role of law enforcement,” Evans said during Assembly comments. “I can’t support it because it certainly creates the impression that this is solely a revenue generator to balance our budget for this year.”

Elsewhere in the meeting the Assembly voted unanimously to re-instate the Anchorage Youth Commission, a body made up residents aged 14 to 22, designed to advise the mayor’s Administration on youth affairs.

The changes to municipal fines go into effect on January 1st.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

Previous articleHaines ski manufacturer lands its own storefront
Next articleVeteran’s Day: 70 years after WWII, we still remember