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Initiative group wants Alaskans to vote against marijuana legalization effort

Suzanna Caldwell
Aaron Jansen illustration

A group opposing a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana in Alaska has finally staked its claim.

The group "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2" officially filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission Thursday. Their goal? Making sure Ballot Measure 2 fails this fall.

"When you look at the evidence, the harms far outweigh the benefits," said Deborah Williams, deputy treasurer with the group, said in an interview with Alaska Dispatch Tuesday.

Williams is one of a handful of Alaskans involved with the group. Others include Northwest Strategies owner Tim Woolston, Dittman Research's Matt Larkin and Alaska Native leader Mike Williams of Akiak, an Iditarod musher who's long been an advocate for sobriety. While still small, the group plans to spend the next four to five months fighting the initiative, though in what capacity is still yet to be determined. They are the first group that has appeared in opposition to the measure.

"Let's pull together concerned Alaskans to show what this initiative is really about," said Deborah Williams. "This initiative, as written, has a lot of extreme measures that are very costly and raise many questions and concerns."

For Deborah Williams, who now works as a youth advocate in Anchorage and was former executive director of the Alaska Lung Association in the 1980s -- before it became the American Lung Association in Alaska -- the issue is personal. She's long been an anti-smoking advocate who lost her grandfather to lung cancer and an aunt to esophageal cancer. She crusaded with the late Sen. Ted Stevens in the 1980s to get smoking banned on airplanes and watched how tobacco advertising used misleading advertisements to entice young people into buying their products.

She doesn't want to see that happen again with marijuana, and she's worried that the way the ballot initiative is written, it could.

She cited numerous examples of marijuana advertising and products in Colorado that boasted colorful, cartoonish designs and names like "Krondike" ice cream bars and "Ring Pots" candy that she suggested was geared toward youth.

But advertising is just one of the reasons why the group thinks marijuana legalization is a bad idea in Alaska. Deborah Williams cited some preliminary scientific studies that suggest prolonged marijuana use affects brain development as well as an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Speaking for the group, she questioned how the initiative would work against local option laws in Alaska that prohibit or restrict alcohol in communities across the state.

She also questioned whether Alaskans would be OK knowing that potent marijuana products like "hash oil," "wax," "crumble" and "shatter" -- all derived from marijuana -- would be legal under the proposed initiative. Williams called them "very problematic" substances that are often far more potent than traditional marijuana. Unable to say whether they are safe or not, she cited studies that show THC makes an impact on human brain development. She encouraged Alaskans to do their research on those products before casting a vote on the initiative.

Outside interests

Williams said she has been in touch with experts at the Smart Approaches to Marijuana project, a national group that opposes marijuana legislation, but said at this point the national group has no involvement in the Alaska effort. Project SAM often uses phrases like "big marijuana" in its literature to compare the marijuana industry to "big tobacco."

Also of concern to the anti-initiative group is the campaign in favor, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska. The group is primarily funded and organized through the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that spearheads marijuana policy across the nation. "They see Alaska as just another domino in their quest," Deborah Williams said. "(Alaskans) don't like being a pawn and we're being a pawn in this."

Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska Spokesman Taylor Bickford called that suggestion an "insult" to the 45,000 Alaskans who signed the petition in favor of the initiative and 55 to 60 percent of Alaskans polled who are in favor of changing the law.

But Williams said there's no reason why Alaska should lead the charge on this issue. As Colorado and Washington state deal with the consequences of legalizing marijuana use, Alaska should hang back and learn lessons from those states, she said.

"What do we want our state to look like?" Williams said. "Right now, the costs far outweigh the benefits."

Correction:  An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect hometown for organizer Mike Williams. 

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