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Irwin Ravin, Alaska marijuana rights activist, dies

Jill Burke

irwin-ravin-story
1990 Homer News file photo
The man who fought "the man" in the 1970s -- by setting himself up to be busted for marijuana, then successfully challenging his case, resulting in a precedent-setting privacy rights court ruling in Alaska -- has died.

Irwin Ravin, 70, died Sunday night at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage after suffering a heart attack, according to Dean Ravin, his son.

From the beginning, Ravin's civil disobedience was a prong in a national battle to legalize the drug. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was pushing for reform state by state. Another Alaskan -- Robert Wagstaff -- was the group's representative in the Last Frontier. Ravin and Wagstaff happened to be law partners who both enjoyed smoking and wanted to upend the state's marijuana laws.

During a routine traffic stop, Ravin set himself up to be arrested by refusing to sign the citation, knowing he had marijuana in his pocket. With his own arrest, he and Wagstaff had the client and test case they needed, and NORML footed the bill to help bring in expert witnesses on Ravin's behalf.

In the decades since Ravin's 1973 arrest, Ravin v. Alaska has been the cornerstone for decisions upholding Alaskans' treasured privacy rights, including the right to possess and smoke small amounts of marijuana. In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court found that Alaskans' constitutionally protected privacy rights trumped the state's right to intrude within the home in pursuit of people using small amounts of marijuana. While the decision's interpretation and proper application has been debated for decades, Ravin effectively pushed the state's treatment of pot into a legal gray area from which it may never emerge.

At least three people busted on pot charges had their court cases tossed based on the Ravin precedent, rulings which also effectively invalidated a handful of state laws subsequent to the Ravin decision to criminalize personal use and possession of marijuana.

The plant's legal limbo in Alaska continues to this day.

Technically, unless you have a medical marijuana license, pot is forbidden. A 2006 change in state law makes possession of any amount of marijuana illegal. Yet the same legal framework forbidding dope is also tolerant of it. There is no criminal penalty for possession of up to an ounce in one's home. An Anchorage police spokesman says authorities won't arrest you for it (although they will take it away from you), which further reinforces the state's reputation (whether earned or not) as having a permissive legal attitude toward the drug.

Clem Tillion, a former Republican state senator in Homer, recalls that at the height of Ravin's challenge marijuana's status in Alaska drew political divisions. Back then the Republicans wanted it decriminalized, he said, yet it was the Democrats, under Gov. Bill Sheffield, who made it illegal - a situation Tillion found ironic.

"I said to one of my liberal friends, ‘Hey, wait a minute. You guys smoked it and now you're outlawing it. None of this stuff makes sense,'" Tillion said.

Tillion, who favors government that "stay(s) out of my hair," believes the Alaska Supreme Court got it right in 1975 with its Ravin ruling. "The privacy of your house is uppermost in my mind," he said.

Nearly 40 years after Irwin Ravin made the decision to turn a citation for a broken taillight into a bigger legal challenge, becoming a household name in the constitutional freedoms of the Last Frontier, Tillion isn't shy about giving a nod to the man he and his family over the years came to know and regard.

"He was a funny-looking hippie, but by God he did good work," Tillion said.

Ravin moved to Fairbanks in 1967, passed the bar and began practicing law. He later moved to Homer, where he lived for years.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.