Alaska's Rep. Don Young has signed on to a bill in Congress that would protect marijuana users from federal prosecution in states where it is legal, saying that the states should be left to decide whether to legalize marijuana or not, and the federal government should stay out of it.
"It's a states' rights issue, period," Young said on Monday.
H.R. 1523, Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, would protect marijuana businesses and individual users from federal prosecution, as long as they are acting under compliance with state laws. Young is one of 15 bipartisan co-sponsors of the bill introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who called the bill "a common-sense approach" to state marijuana laws in a press release.
Young said he has never used marijuana. "I've been around it because some people who are dear to me used it," Young said. But he has personally steered clear of the drug.
"I never inhaled," Young said, referencing former president Bill Clinton's infamous 1992 statement on whether he had ever gotten high.
H.R. 1523 appears in Congress at a time when marijuana is seeing increased support nationally, and as a petition seeking to legalize the drug sits in Alaska's Lt. Governor's office, awaiting approval before supporters can take the petition to the streets. Alaska's initiative would make marijuana legal for people 21 and older, and would tax and regulate the drug. If it is approved by the Lt. Governor, supporters will have one year to collect the necessary signatures. The legislature would then review the petition, and if successful it would appear on the ballot in either August 2014 or August 2016, depending on when supporters file the petition.
The last time a marijuana petition made it on the ballot was in 2004, but that measure, which included amnesty and reparations for past marijuana offenses, failed at the polls, garnering 45 percent of the vote.
The initiative being presented today differs greatly from the prior one. "The whole initiative, you can tell, is scaled down to be as palatable as possible," bill sponsor Bill Parker told the Associated Press.
Would Rep. Young support a voter-led intiative to legalize marijuana in Alaska? "That's their decision," he said.
"Why should we do what the government tells us to do when ... it's against the will of the people?" he said.
In Alaska, whether or not pot is legal is an issue muddled by court decisions and state law. While a 1975 case, Ravin V. Alaska, extended constitutional privacy protections to include the right to possess and smoke small amounts of marijuana, a state law passed in 2006 criminalized the possession of any amount of the drug. But courts found that law also violated citizen privacy rights defined in Ravin, and several Alaskans busted on pot charges have had their cases tossed from court based on the precedent.
So while the 2006 law makes possession of any amount of marijuana illegal, the same legal framework is also tolerant of it. Last year, however, Anchorage Police Department spokesperson Lt. Dave Parker told Alaska Dispatch "Nothing is allowable unless you have a permit. If you have a medical marijuana license then you can grow up to six plants. End of story. If you don't have a medical marijuana card you are in trouble."
The introduction of H.R. 1523 also comes on the heels of a recent Pew Research Center survey that found that 60 percent of Americans think the federal government should not enforce federal laws prohibiting marijuana use in states where it has been legalized. The poll also found 52 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, up 11 percent from 2010.
In November's elections, both Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana for people over 21. Sixteen other states, including Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
But does the bill have a chance at passing Congress? "That remains to be seen," wrote Young's press secretary Michael Anderson on Tuesday.
"Young hopes that the bill in question will receive a Congressional hearing before the committee of jurisdiction in the coming months." Anderson wrote.
Even if it does pass Congress, Obama would still have the chance to veto the bill and kick it back to Congress.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com