JUSTICES UPHOLD RIGHT TO USE POT
State Ruling: Federal Anti-Drug Laws on Possession Remain In
The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld the right of adult Alaskans to
possess up to four ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal
The high court accomplished this by letting stand a lower court
opinion issued last year, which breathed life into a 1975 ruling
thought by many to be obsolete.
Attorney General Gregg Renkes and Fairbanks defense attorney Bill
Satterberg agreed Tuesday that the four-ounce personal-use allowance
is now indisputably the law, although it does not immunize Alaskans
against federal drug statutes.
If this sounds like the end of the matter, don't be fooled. Alaskans
have been arguing about marijuana for 30 years, and this is just the
latest "final" ruling.
The 1975 decision, known as Ravin v. State, concluded that Alaskans'
constitutional right to privacy outweighs any social harm that might
be caused by at-home use of small amounts of marijuana.
The Alaska Constitution has a special guarantee of privacy from
government interference, one not included in the federal Constitution.
The Ravin decision says the right is not absolute but concludes the
state has to jump some pretty high hurdles to justify interfering with
what a person does to him or herself in his or her own home. The state
failed to prove that possessing a small amount of marijuana for
private, adult, at-home use justified such interference, the justices
said nearly 30 years ago.
"The state cannot impose its own notions of morality, propriety, or
fashion on individuals when the public has no legitimate interest in
the affairs of those individuals," Ravin says.
The decision expressed disapproval of marijuana use and upheld laws
against the sale, distribution, driving under the influence, use by
minors or use outside the home thereof.
"It is the responsibility of every individual to consider carefully
the ramifications for himself and for those around him of using such
substances. With the freed
om which our society offers to each of us to
order our lives as we see fit goes the duty to live responsibly," Ravin said.
Ravin did not mention a specific amount, but in 1982 the Legislature
said anything under four ounces would be considered a personal-use
stash, absent any evidence of sales or distribution.
Ravin remained the law in Alaska until 1990, when voters passed an
initiative outlawing all amounts of marijuana. The initiative appeared
to "overturn" Ravin, and law enforcement around the state began
prosecuting people for possession of small amounts.
One of those people was David Noy of North Pole. According to
Satterberg, his attorney, Noy was arrested after police reported they
could smell his five marijuana plants in his home from 300 feet away.
A jury convicted him of possession of less than eight ounces.
Satterberg appealed the conviction, arguing among other points that
the 1990 initiative recriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was
The Court of Appeals agreed. The exception for personal use at home
was based on a constitutional right, which could not be taken away by
the Legislature or a ballot initiative, the court said in an Aug. 29,
With the renewal of Ravin, Alaska joins 11 other states that have
decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use, although
many of those still fine people for possession, according to Kris
Kane, assistant director of NORML, a national organization seeking
regulated legalization of the drug.
Renkes doesn't think Alaska should be in that select group. The world
of drugs and addiction has changed in the 30 years since Ravin was
decided, he said Tuesday. The balancing test between privacy rights
and the harm that drugs do needs to be re-examined in light of the new
information, he said.
"I respect and will abide by" the Ravin/Noy ruling, Renkes said.
"We're going to try to write a law the Supreme Court would uphold," he
said. "We're going to take a fairly methodical approach."
Renkes said he envisions extensive legislative hearings, laying out a
complete record of the importance of anti-marijuana laws and the
damage done by legalizing even small amounts. Should the Legislature
pass a new law, and should it be challenged, the courts would have a
complete record on which to base a new decision, he said.
People familiar with drug prosecutions said the Ravin/Noy ruling
probably won't have much effect on who goes to jail. People are almost
never charged only with possession in their home of less than four
ounces, said Anchorage attorney Karen Bretz, who has defended drug
cases in the Mat-Su. Most of her cases deal with larger amounts, she
"I think it will encourage the police to use their resources for more
productive things than prosecuting marijuana cases," Bretz said.
Renkes and Jason Brandeis, staff attorney for the Alaska Civil
Liberties Union, both warned that possession of marijuana is still
against federal law.
"The feds can break into your house if you have an ounce of marijuana,
and you can be charged federally," Brandeis said.
Renkes said the state does not intend to feed the names of home-use
suspects to the feds for prosecution, but state law enforcement will
continue to work closely with federal agencies on drug cases that
interest both entities, he said, regardless of the amount of drugs
Lawyers said the Ravin/Noy ruling does not appear to affect a November
ballot initiative that removes all civil and criminal penalties for
adult growth, possession and sale of marijuana and proposes regulation
similar to alcohol controls.