Alaska moved one big step closer Tuesday to a public vote on legalizing marijuana.
On Tuesday, a ballot initiative campaign to decriminalize and regulate pot reached the signature threshold necessary under state election law to put the issue on the Aug. 19 primary ballot.
If the measure passes, Alaska would become the third state in the nation, after Colorado and Washington, to allow cannabis for recreational use.
Backers modeled the proposed initiative after Colorado's new law, which regulates and taxes marijuana similarly to alcohol.
Alaska's Campaign to Regulate Marijuana reached the signature threshold on Tuesday morning, when totals posted on the Alaska Division of Elections' website showed that 31,593 valid voter signatures had been counted. State election law requires 30,000 signatures. Ballot initiative backers also met a requirement to gather signatures from voters in at least 30 of 40 House districts.
"They have hit the magic numbers," said state elections director Gail Fenumiai.
Nothing is official quite yet.
First, workers must examine the remaining 5,000 signatures and Lt. Gov Mead Treadwell must sign certification paperwork, Fenumiai said. That's expected to happen next week.
Reaching the signature requirement was the last major hurdle to getting the question on the Aug. 19 primary election ballot.
There, Alaskans will decide on legal pot along other big questions for the state, including a controversial oil-tax referendum, an initiative that would require legislative approval for future large-scale mines in the Bristol Bay region and potentially a boost to the minimum wage.
All that -- plus a contested U.S. Senate race primary -- could draw large numbers of voters, said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage pollster and campaign consultant.
"The primary election is looking at being one of the highest turnout primaries we've had ever, I think," he said.
It's not clear how that will play for the marijuana question.
But in Alaska as in the rest of the United States, attitudes toward legalizing the drug have dramatically softened in recent years.
In a 2004 Ivan Moore Research poll that asked if pot should be decriminalized, only 38 percent of Alaskans said yes. By 2010, the number jumped to 43 percent when Alaskans were asked if pot should be legalized. A 2013 poll by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling firm on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project found that 54 percent of Alaskans polled would vote yes on a ballot initiative.
"There has been phenomenal change," Moore said.
So far, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana 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.
The group has contributed $1,000 in cash and $3,757 in services and other in-kind donations, according to Alaska Public Offices Commission campaign disclosure reports. Four individual donors had contributed a total of $1,800 as of Jan. 11.
Backers argue that pot should be legalized and regulated in a manner similar to alcohol, with local communities retaining the ability to opt-out.
So far, most of the campaign's energy has been spent on gathering signatures, said spokesman Taylor Bickford, who works for Strategies 360, a Seattle-based public relations and consulting firm with offices in Alaska and throughout the West that's managing the initiative effort.
Campaigners handed 48,000 signatures to the Division of Elections on Jan. 8.
About 79 percent of signatures counted so far have been found "qualified" by state rules, said Fenumiai.
Past petitions have had signature acceptance rates of between 80 percent and 89 percent, she said, putting the marijuana initiative at the low end of the spectrum.
"The bottom line is we exceeded the required number of signatures," Bickford said. "You don't get bonus points for having a higher validity rate."
Most of the 8,485 signatures found "unqualified" by the state are considered invalid because the signers couldn't be identified as registered voters, Fenumiai said.
A national anti-legalization group headed by Patrick Kennedy has said it plans to campaign against the ballot initiative.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, like its opponent the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana, appears to be selling its side of the issue as the only approach compatible with the Alaskan value of independence.
"Smart Approaches to Marijuana has been approached by Alaskan activists who don't want to see the safety problems and burdensome government regulation that would come with legalization," wrote spokesman Kevin Sabet in an email Tuesdsay.
Sabet wouldn't say who those Alaskan activists were. Plans will be announced later this spring, he wrote.
Bickford said that argument won't far.
"I don't think Alaskans are going to have a member of the Kennedy family from the East Coast telling us how to live our lives," Bickford said.
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