To legalize or not: Ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana debated at UAA

Laurel Andrews
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave an impassioned speech on U.S. drug policy ahead of a panel debate at UAA on the ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska. Laurel Andrews photo

A week after the ballot measure to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Alaska was officially certified, five speakers debated issues surrounding the initiative to hundreds who had gathered at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at the University of Alaska Anchorage Wednesday evening.

The event, sponsored by the UAA Justice Center and Justice Club, began with keynote speaker Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, giving an impassioned speech about drug policy in the United States. Calling the war on drugs a “rat hole of waste,” Nadelmann paced the stage, microphone in hand, to the applause of several hundred audience members, many of whom were in their 20s and 30s.

Many in the audience clapped during segments of his opening speech, and throughout the debate, when he returned to certain points -- calling marijuana prohibition “grounded in bigotry, prejudice and ignorance” -- they would applaud again.

He asked audience members to raise their hands if they planned to vote yes on the initiative, which will appear on the Aug. 19 ballot, and about 70 percent of the audience raised their hands.

“Drugs are here to stay,” Nadelmann said in his opening speech. “That’s the fact of the matter whether we like it or not.”

The panel -- made up of three pro-initiative speakers and two against the ballot measure -- all agreed, to some extent, that the use of cannabis in Alaska is here to stay. But how to address marijuana usage, and whether legalization would increase the number of Alaskans smoking, was hotly debated during the two-hour discussion.

The panel touched on some of the most contentious issues surrounding the marijuana debate: taxation and revenue, driving under the influence, underage access to cannabis products, and mental health issues.

The issue of taxation and revenue was touched upon first by Ben Cort, the project director with Smart Approaches to Marijuana. He argued that the wording of the initiative would invite multimillion-dollar companies that would sweep through the state, commencing aggressive marketing and bringing along super-potent products that would be marketed towards, and dangerous to, underage users.

Citing Alaska’s murky marijuana legal status, Cort said that the Alaska initiative was not about legalization -- but about big business and “protecting commercial interests.”  

Representative for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Taylor Bickford called that representation of the initiative the “demonization of free enterprise” and questioned how inviting industry into the state could be negative for the economy. Marijuana sales already exist, he argued. The state should “regulate it in a way Alaskans can actually benefit.”

The panel also discussed the issue of driving while under the influence, which the state predicts will increase if cannabis is legalized. Lance Buchholtz, a retired Wisconsin sheriff, who attended the discussion representing Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, stated that he was “not going to sit here and condone” driving under the influence, but wasn’t convinced that number would increase should marijuana be legalized.

Nadelmann stated that “it’s impossible to say” whether the number of drivers would increase, but stated that stoned drivers “were not like drunk drivers,” and that experienced cannabis users tended only to drive too slowly, or perhaps “forget a little where they were headed.” Alcohol was much more disruptive, he said -- the real risk would be drivers who were both stoned and drunk, or new users smoking more than usual.

Former chief assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska Dean Guaneli said that the problem with driving stoned is it’s hard to test for -- blood tests are inconsistent, he stated, and that makes detecting stoned drivers a difficult task for police officers.

The discussion later turned to whether children and teenagers would be more likely to start smoking if cannabis were legalized, and whether legalization would have a negative impact on the realm of public health.

Guaneli argued that while teenagers already have access to marijuana, bringing in commercial interests with advertising that appeals to children would lead to more kids using it. More dependence would lead to more problems with treatment within the mental health system. The revenue collected wouldn’t be worth it, he argued. “Why take the risk? What is there to be gained?” he asked.

Nadelmann disagreed, arguing that states that have decriminalized cannabis have seen a drop in adolescent users. For teenagers, buying marijuana is currently easier than purchasing alcohol, he said. Any teenager who wants to use cannabis is already able to, he said.

Cort argued that the likelihood that someone with mental health issues suffers a psychotic break increases sixfold if they are regular marijuana users. He stated that for folks who start smoking as adults, one in 11 develop issues with marijuana dependence.

Bickford argued that for those one in 11 people, marijuana abuse was “not all that bad” compared to alcohol.

On the topic of public health, event moderator Jason Brandeis asked Guaneli whether Alaska’s criminal drug laws should shift to more of a treatment model.

Guaneli stated that marijuana possession cases are not the priority for law enforcement. “Marijuana cases in Alaska are simply not a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said. Problems surrounding the consumption of alcohol were different, he stated. And while alcohol is already taxed and regulated, it still remains a huge issue for Alaska, he said. “That means we’re doing a terrible job,” regulating the industry, he said. The alcohol and tobacco industry, with their deep pocket books and lobbyists, influence the public sector.

“Why would we want to have a third industry growing up like that?” Guaneli asked.

Brandeis, fielding a question from an audience member, asked Nadelmann why the state doesn’t just wait to see how legalization pans out in Colorado and Washington. “There’s no reason to wait,” Nadelmann said. He stated that Alaska was “part of the national wave” of shifting opinion regarding cannabis use.

Bickford stated that “public opinion has changed really rapidly,” mainly along generational divides, with younger folks leaning heavily toward legalization. He urged the audience to register to vote at a booth set up on the main floor of the auditorium for the event. 

Guaenli and Cort maintained that Alaska should wait and see how legalization pans out in Colorado before enacting similar legislation.