Alaska voters may get the chance next year to make their state the third in the country to approve the recreational use of marijuana by adults 21 and older.
Backers of the move on Tuesday took the first step toward getting the measure on the August 2014 primary ballot. Three prime sponsors of the effort filed their application for an initiative petition along with signatures from what they say are at least 100 other supporters with the state lieutenant governor's office.
The group is led by Tim Hinterberger, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The other two prime sponsors are Bill Parker and Mary Reff, according to Gail Fenumiai, state elections director.
The measure would tax and regulate marijuana sales and allow Alaskans to cultivate marijuana for personal use. Among other things, it would allow the Legislature to create a Marijuana Control Board, though until then, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board would regulate marijuana sales. Alaskans age 21 and older could legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana under the proposal, or six marijuana plants, three of which could be mature.
If state officials decide everything's in order after a 60-day review, backers will have until mid-January to get signatures from another 30,169 people -- 10 percent of the number who voted in the last general election -- to force a vote, said Steve Fox, the national political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group in Washington. The Marijuana Policy Project is working with the local committee.
The signatures would have to be gathered from at least 30 of the state's 40 House districts, under procedures specified in the state constitution.
Alaskans rejected a legalization initiative in 2004, with only 44 percent of the state's voters backing the idea. But Alaska's marijuana laws are among the most liberal in the nation. In 1975, the state's Supreme Court ruled that a person's privacy included the right to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana in his or her home -- which is more than the new proposal would allow.
Fox is expecting a better result at the ballot box next year, thanks to growing public support and backing of a national pro-marijuana bill from Republican Rep. Don Young, Alaska's only congressman.
As a co-sponsor of the new Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, Young sided with states last Friday in the debate over whether they should have more power than the federal government does in regulating marijuana.
"That was a great surprise," Fox said. "He's a longtime Republican representing the entire state. It's quite significant. It shows the tide is turning."
The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, would modify the federal Controlled Substances Act to allow anyone who is acting in compliance with a state marijuana law to be immune from federal prosecution.
It comes as Washington state and Colorado, the two states that approved recreational marijuana use last year, await word from the Justice Department on whether they may proceed with plans to open retail pot shops later this year.
Mike Anderson, Young's press secretary, said the bill "is particularly important for a state such as Alaska," which approved a ballot measure in 1998 that allows residents to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
"Simply put, this issue, like many others, is a states' rights issue, and the legislation ... would prevent the federal government from criminalizing marijuana activities in contradiction to state law," Anderson said in an emailed response to questions. That view conflicts with that of many opponents, who say it's a mistake to legalize marijuana because it would lead to more drug use and more highway deaths.
Tom Gorman, a former head of California's anti-narcotics efforts who is now the director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in Denver -- which coordinates federal, state and local law enforcement efforts -- said states shouldn't be allowed to pass laws that clearly violated the nation's drug policies and federal authorities should get restraining orders to stop any states from doing so.
The proposed Alaska law says that marijuana sales and production should be regulated so that "legitimate, taxpaying business people, and not criminal actors, will conduct sales of marijuana." In addition, regulation would require buyers to show proof of age, and would require labeling of marijuana so that consumers are informed and protected, the proposed law says.
Marijuana use would still be barred in public. People growing their own pot would have to keep it out of public view. Retailers couldn't display marijuana or associated products so that they were visible from the street. And local governments could ban grow operations, manufacturing facilities or retail stores within their jurisdictions.
Marijuana backers were buoyed by a survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm in Raleigh, N.C., that found that 54 percent of Alaskans would support legalizing marijuana. It found the strongest support among voters ages 18 to 34, at 62 percent, and the lowest among voters 65 and older, at 43 percent. The survey of 2,347 Alaska primary voters was conducted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3.
Alaskans' views appear to be consistent with those of most Americans. A poll that the Pew Research Center released earlier this month found for the first time that a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- back legalization.
Ken Jacobus, an Anchorage lawyer who was involved in the failed 2004 effort to legalize marijuana in Alaska, said the measure would be easier to pass in 2014 for two reasons: The electorate has changed, and the new initiative wouldn't include amnesty for past marijuana offenses.
With growing political support, the Marijuana Policy Project is moving on plans to get marijuana initiatives on ballots in California and other states in 2016.
"It's not just Alaska," Fox said. "This is really starting to be a time where we think almost any state is a good state. ... The people seem to be ready to end marijuana prohibition."
Rob Hotakainen, a reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, reported from Washington D.C. and Daily News reporter Lisa Demer reported from Anchorage. Emails them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.