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Supporters issue challenge to opposition in fight to legalize marijuana in Alaska

With the news that an opposition group to the ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana in Alaska has formed, proponents are firing back.

In a Wednesday morning press conference, supporters of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska stood outside a downtown Anchorage office building with a giant novelty check written out to "No on 2/ Project S.A.M." for $9,015 -- the same amount of money the alcohol lobby donated to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy during his time in office. Kennedy is the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national group that opposes marijuana legalization.

The event served as a challenge to opponents of the Alaska measure -- a group collectively known as "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No On 2"-- to show the public the science proving that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. They specifically criticized Tim Woolston, deputy treasurer of the group and part owner of Fat Ptarmigan, a pizzeria that also serves beer and wine, for accepting money from alcohol sales while advocating against marijuana.

"We decided to present them with a challenge that really strikes at the heart of the issue," said Tim Hinterberger, chair of the pro-legalization campaign, in a press conference Wednesday. "They are going to spend the next four months trying to scare people into thinking marijuana is so dangerous it simply cannot be legal for adults. Yet the fact is marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society."

But the Vote No On 2 campaign deputy treasurer Deborah Williams called the personal attack a "diversion" designed to distract from the substance of the initiative -- a tactic that she said was also used during the marijuana legalization campaign in Colorado. She said the money would be better served going toward an agency that deals with substance abuse in Alaska. "(These attacks) are inappropriate and not useful for Alaskans to understand the content of the initiative and the harms that it raises," she said.

The event served as the first salvo in what is expected to be a battle between the two sides before the fall election. Both groups have ties to larger national groups looking to reform marijuana laws across the country. Since January, the campaign in support of legalization has received more than $210,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that has spearheaded legalization efforts across the U.S. While chaired by Alaskan Hinterberger, the campaign director, Chris Rempert, is a Marijuana Policy Project staffer.

The anti-legalization campaign, which has been critical of their opponent's ties to the Marijuana Policy Project, has itself made contact with representatives with Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Williams said she had been in contact with the group, but so far had not received any financial contributions. She said representatives from anti-legalization groups would come to Alaska "only we if we ask." Ben Cort, a Smart Approaches to Marijuana board member who works in Colorado, came to Alaska in March to speak against the initiative. Williams said he paid to come himself.

Still, some of the anti-legalization campaign's message, including comparing "Big Marijuana" to "Big Tobacco," is similar to tactics used by Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

"They're spreading the same message," Rempert said Wednesday, "one that cannot be won in Alaska."

But whether Alaskans will care about the messages from national groups remains to be seen. When asked whether the pro-legalization campaign thinks Alaskans will care about money that Kennedy -- a Rhode Islander with no apparent ties to Alaska -- received from the alcohol lobby, campaign spokesman Taylor Bickford said that issue was "not the central discussion." He said pointing out Kennedy's ties to alcohol is about the hypocrisy, one the pro-legalization campaign suggests is being repeated in Alaska.

Asked whether Alaskans will be interested in watching a national campaign between two opposing groups play out in Alaska, Hinterberger cited the support from Alaskans in gathering signatures. He said polling shows just over half of all Alaskans are in favor of the initiative.

"We know we have support from Alaskans," Hinterberger said. "This (campaign) is not led by MPP, this is being led by Alaskans. This is local."

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