ALASKANS TO DECIDE ON MARIJUANA
Some Question the Need After 2003 State Court Ruling.
Alaskans will decide next month whether to overturn a state law
making marijuana possession illegal, but a court decision in 2003 may
make the effort moot.
Legalization advocates are pumping hundreds of thousands in campaign
dollars from outside Alaska to promote passage of Ballot Measure 2,
while an opposition group in Anchorage operates on a shoestring budget
of about $10,000. The marijuana initiative is one of four ballot
questions voters will decide on in the Nov. 2 election.
"I'm concerned," said former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea, an Anchorage
lawyer who prosecuted federal drug cases in the early 1990s. "I'm
concerned any time someone comes in and targets Alaskans."
He said recent television and radio advertisements are funded by an
organization based in Washington, D.C., known as the Marijuana Policy
Project. He said one of the ads aims to mislead the public by
suggesting that the government could target guns, alcohol or
He said the legalization issue was decided this year when the state
Supreme Court allowed an appeals court ruling to stand permitting
possession in the home.
"According to Alaska state law right now you can possess up to four
ounces of marijuana," Shea said. "If that's the law now, why are they
bringing up these ads that you are going to lose the right to privacy?"
Al Anders of Juneau, a coordinator for the advocacy group Yes On 2,
denied the charges that the legalization effort is pushed by an
Outside group. Anders also is a former chairman for the Libertarian
Party of Alaska and candidate for the U.S. House of
"I find it laughable to refer to this initiative as being funded by
outside money," Anders said, noting that he alone collected 9,000 of
the signatures to certify the initiative. "We put this thing on the
ballot by ourselves."
Alaskans have spent the last three decades arguing over the state's
marijuana laws. In 1975, the state Supreme Court issued its landmark
Ravin versus State decision, protecting possession of marijuana for
personal use under the Alaska Constitution. It
added, though, that the
possession of amounts of marijuana that indicate an "intent to sell
rather than for personal use" remained illegal. The Supreme Court
noted in its decision that although it maintained an individual's
freedom to use marijuana "we wish to make clear that we do not mean to
condone the use of marijuana."
The Legislature in 1982 passed a law drawing the line for home use at
four ounces, but a 1990 citizen initiative criminalized possession.
That was considered state law until 2003, when the Alaska Court of
Appeals decided that the constitutional protection to privacy cannot
be trumped by a citizen initiative. Attorney General Greg Renkes
petitioned the state Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling but was
denied a hearing last month.
Paul Grant, a Juneau attorney who serves on the state board of the
American Civil Liberties Union, said that although the constitution
trumps the power of initiative, this initiative would do more than
just legalize possession.
It also fills in gaps left by the court decision, such as establishing
guidelines for possession of industrial hemp products and protecting
doctors who recommend marijuana use to their patients, he said.
Grant said he believes this year's initiative has a much better chance
than a similar legalization effort in 2000 that won only 41 percent of
the vote. The 2000 initiative would have legalized possession of four
ounces for those 18 and older. The proposal also would have provided
amnesty for those convicted of marijuana-related crimes and
established an advisory group to review restitution for those arrested.
This year's initiative allows those 21 and older to possess four
ounces or less for personal use in their home and allows the state to
regulate marijuana like alcohol or tobacco.
"Certainly this version is more moderate and it's going to attract
people who couldn't swallow the idea of amnesty and couldn't swallow
the possibility of restitution," Grant said.
Steve Mihalik, an organizer for the anti-legalization movement, said
he believes that most people do not support drug use, despite the
collection of more than 28,000 signatures to get the initiative on the
"We need to make sure we don't get confused between support and a
signature," said Mihalik, general manager of the Anchorage
drug-testing firm WorkSafe, Inc. "Not many people take the time to
read four pages of the petition initiative."
He argued that marijuana use is a gateway to more harmful drugs like
cocaine and that legalizing it will make it more available to children.
"The first cigarette I smoked was the one I stole from my parents," he
Grant argued that many people across the state already use marijuana
and use it responsibly.
"I don't think there's any evidence that decriminalizing marijuana is
going to change use patterns," Grant said. "I don't think
decriminalizing it is going to make it any easier for high school kids
to get ahold of it. Regulating it, in my view, is going to make it
harder to get a hold of because the supply is going to be under control."