Backers of vote on legal marijuana in Alaska turn in signatures

mtheriault@adn.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Backers of a ballot initiative that could make Alaska the third state to legalize marijuana for recreational use turned in some 46,000 signatures to the state election officials Wednesday -- putting the question one step closer to the Aug. 19 ballot.

The Alaska measure is modeled on the 2012 Colorado initiative that paved the way for a recreational-pot industry that threw open its doors there on Jan. 1, when the law went into effect.

The backers of the Alaska initiative effort say legal marijuana is an idea whose time has come.

"It's not that the initiative would bring marijuana to Alaska," said Bill Parker, a former Department of Corrections deputy commissioner and one of the initiative's sponsors. "Marijuana is already in Alaska. It would legalize, regulate and tax it. It would treat it like alcohol."

The proposed initiative is backed by a coalition that calls itself the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana.

The main local sponsors include Tim Hinterberger, a University of Alaska-Anchorage professor, Mary Reff, a retired Anchorage accountant, and Parker.

So far, the campaign has mostly been funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that is the largest marijuana policy reform group in the country.

Meanwhile, a national anti-legalization group said it is gearing up to enter the fray.

Kevin Sabat, a Massachusetts-based spokesman for the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said he was approached by an unnamed "very diverse group of Alaskans who are very concerned with legalization."

SAM has emerged as a national foe of the Marijuana Policy Project.

The opposition campaign plans to launch within the next two months, Sabat said.

The group will argue that marijuana laws in Alaska are already liberal enough and that a state-regulated industry would be a harbinger of "onerous government relations and extra government influence," Sabat said.

A state Supreme Court decision decriminalized small amounts of marijuana consumed in the privacy of a home in 1975, making Alaska the sole state where pot was legal.

Since then, the law on marijuana in Alaska has see-sawed back and forth between decriminalization and stricter enforcement.

A 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision, Ravin v. State, found that banning the use of small amounts of marijuana at home violated a state constitutional right to privacy.

The Legislature tried again in 2006 to ban possession of small amounts of pot, but overturning the Ravin decision would take another ruling by the Supreme Court and no one has appealed a case that far.

As a result, the 2006 restrictions are probably unenforceable.

In 1998, Alaska voters legalized medical marijuana.

Legalization has been on ballot initiatives twice before: In 2000, a broadly written initiative got 41 percent of the vote. Another attempt in 2004 garnered 44 percent.

The country has changed since then, said Parker.

"I think Alaska and the country are coming to grips with the fact that what we have isn't working."

Polling shows that a majority of Alaskans favor legalization, said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. He said he couldn't immediately cite specific numbers.

Alaska's current marijuana laws are a contradictory patchwork, Parker said.

"In the insane way it fell together, it's legal to have it in your home but not to acquire it. And you can legally acquire it with a medical prescription but there's no place to buy it."

If the measure passes, people over 21 could legally keep up to an ounce of marijuana and six plants for personal use. They could also buy cannabis and cannabis-related products freely at licensed shops. They could smoke on private property -- such as a balcony or front yard -- but not on public property. Scofflaws could be fined $100.

But the neighborhood guy who grows pot in his attic and sells it to friends?

That would be illegal, unless he became a licensed cultivator and distributor, Tvert said.

The industry would be regulated by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board at first, but lawmakers could create at any point new Marijuana Control Board.

The board would regulate the retail stores, greenhouses, manufacturers of pot-related products and testing facilities. The board would have about nine months to design regulations. Would-be marijuana entrepreneurs could start applying to open business after a year.

A local control provision would mean that individual towns could ban the shops, similar to the way some Alaskan communities ban the sale of alcohol.

(In Colorado, the initial bunch of businesses are clustered in Denver, Boulder and some mountain towns, Tvert said.)

The initiative would have no impact on the state's existing medical marijuana law, or for that matter, federal law: Marijuana is still considered a "Schedule I" illegal drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, along with heroin and LSD.

Tvert says Alaska and Oregon are the two states most likely to pass legalization measures in 2014.

But he sees a cascade of other states following, mostly through the ballot initiative process.

"I think we're going to see states adopting these laws very quickly."

State election officials have 60 days to certify the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana's signatures.

The group needs 30,000 qualified signatures for a vote to happen. Signatures must come from at least 7 percent of voters in a minimum of 30 House districts.

The next step? A statewide "roadshow" to tell people what to expect from legalization, Hinterberger said.

And yes, Hinterberger says, in case you were wondering: He smokes marijuana.

"I think in probably ridiculously small amounts for a legalization activist."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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