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Alaska marijuana legalization initiative turns in 45,000 signatures

Laurel Andrews
Tim Hintenberger with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana, a group which is submitting 20 boxes of signatures at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage. The group is attempting to put a petition on the ballot to legalize marijuana. Jan. 8, 2013 Loren Holmes photo

The Alaska Campaign to Regulate Marijuana handed over more than 45,000 signatures on Wednesday afternoon at the Alaska Department of Elections in Midtown Anchorage for certification by Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell. If the signatures are found to meet state requirements, the measure will head to the polls to appear on the the Aug. 19 primary election ballot, and voters will decide whether to legalize, tax and regulate the production, sale and recreational use of marijuana in Alaska.

As initiative sponsor Tim Hinterberger stood outside the Department of Elections on Wednesday, preparing to deliver twenty Bankers Boxes full of signatures, he described the moment as “pretty exciting.”

“It’s been a job getting this far,” Hinterberger said. And now, he’s confident voters “will see it’s an idea whose time has come.”

The campaign had to collect just over 30,000 signatures from 30 of Alaska’s 40 voting districts in order to qualify. Hinterberger said earlier Wednesday morning their team has worked hard to ensure that those requirements are met. Hinterberg predicted there would be “no question" the initiative would qualify.

If successful, the petition will bring the measure before voters later this year. Hinterberger also expressed confidence the measure would pass.

“It’s pretty clear to most Alaskans that prohibition has failed,” he said.

The act would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana for adults aged 21 years or older. Marijuana would be taxed at $50 per ounce. Where those funds would end up, whether in the state’s general fund or for a specific section of state government, is not laid out in the act. 

“It’s going to be up to the Legislature to work out the details as to how this is implemented,” Hinterberger said.

The 8-page act was drafted by a team of folks from Alaska and Colorado, including several attorneys, Hinterberger said, with the language based largely on Colorado’s law. Voters in Colorado passed a ballot initiative of their own legalizing recreational marijuana in November 2012.

Under Alaska's proposed act, a Marijuana Control Board could be created within the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The board would establish the procedures surrounding registration, security and labeling requirements, as well as health and safety regulations, among other duties.

Public use of marijuana would be banned, with a fine up to $100 per offense. Local governments could also choose to continue prohibition of marijuana in individual communities.

The act also states that it would not diminish the right to privacy as interpreted by the Alaska Supreme Court in the 1975 case Ravin v. State of Alaska, which found that constitutionally-protected privacy rights trumped the state's home intrusion authority in pursuit of Alaskans using small amounts of marijuana.

The proposed act states that it does not exempt any individual or entity from requirements of federal law. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though the U.S. Department of Justice indicated in August that it wouldn’t challenge legalization laws in Washington state and Colorado so long as the states prevent access to minors, drugged driving, and out-of-state distribution, among other conditions.

If the initiative reaches the ballot, it will join the SB 21 referendum -- which seeks to roll back the changes to oil taxes that passed the Legislature in 2013 -- and another initiative that requires lawmakers to approve any mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay region by passing a law ensuring it won't threaten the area's salmon fisheries. The primary election will also host a flurry of candidates for both Governor and Lt. Governor.

“It may very well be the least controversial measure on the ballot in August,” Hinterberger said.

In January, Colorado became the first state to fully legalize marijuana. Sales began Jan. 1, and dispensaries reported more than $1 million in sales statewide on the first day. Colorado projects $578.1 million a year in combined wholesale and retail marijuana sales, yielding $67 million in tax revenue. A 15 percent wholesale transaction tax will finance school construction, and a 10 percent retail tax will fund regulation of the industry.

Washington is slated to begin marijuana sales in June. A 25 percent sales tax will be paid by the producers, processors and retailers of the product.

Meanwhile, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013 is weaving through Congress, and was referred to committee last year. That bill that would protect marijuana businesses and individual users from federal prosecution in states where marijuana has been legalized.

At least one longtime Alaska lawmaker has already expressed willingness to go along with the results of any ballot measure that seeks to legalize marijuana. Alaska Rep. Don Young supported the bill, and said in May that he would support whatever Alaskan voters decide in terms of legalization of marijuana in the state.

“That’s their decision,” he said at the time.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich expressed a similar sentiment. “If Alaskans have the opportunity to make their voices heard I will support their decision,” Begich said in a written statement Wednesday.

The last time marijuana legalization was brought before voters was in 2004. That measure failed to garner enough support at the polls, with 44 percent of voters in favor of the act. That act would have offered a much looser regulation of marijuana than the current act proposed under the new ballot initiative.

A new law criminalizing possession of any amount of marijuana was passed in 2006, but the courts found that law also violated citizen privacy rights upheld by Ravin. Whether marijuana is legal in Alaska or not is a debate that continues to this day.

The Alaska Campaign to Regulate Marijuana will soon be headed around the state to discuss the initiative with the public. It will also begin an advertising campaign, Hinterberger said. The group has thus far received sponsorship from the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D. C., as well as private individuals.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews