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Coalition hopes to swing conservative voters toward legalizing marijuana

Proponents of an initiative that would legalize marijuana in Alaska are hoping to reach out to a voting bloc considered unlikely to support the effort: conservatives.

On Wednesday, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska announced the formation of the Coalition of Conservatives in Support of Ballot Measure 2. The group consists of Eddie Burke, conservative talk radio show host and Anchorage Tea Party founding member; Bruce Schulte, Alaska Republican Party district chair and state central committee member; and Dani Bickford, who describes herself as a longtime Republican and Anchorage mother. Bickford recently joined the yes campaign as a field director but said her role in the coalition is as a volunteer. She is married to campaign spokesman Taylor Bickford.

The goal, coalition members say, is to get more conservatives on board with what they see as the positives of legalizing marijuana in Alaska. According to the campaign, the group will use a variety of tactics to reach out to conservative voters, including social media and recruiting volunteers.

In November, Alaskans will decide whether to support Ballot Measure 2, which would legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska. If passed, it would make the drug legal to those 21 years of age and older and tax it at $50 per ounce. It would make Alaska the third state in the country to legalize recreational use.

Generally, Democrats are more likely, both nationally and in Alaska, to support marijuana legalization. A poll from the Republican House Majority in April found that 64 percent of Democrats support legalization, while 57 percent of Republicans polled were against it. However, when it comes to political leaders, those party lines appear to be less consistent.

The establishment of the coalition comes despite opposition from multiple conservative groups, including the Alaska Republican Party, which voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution in May opposing the ballot measure. The Anchorage Republican Women's Club posted on Facebook following Wednesday's event that the majority of Republican leaders in the state oppose Ballot Measure 2 and called Burke, Schulte and Bickford "self-appointed" representatives.

Numerous Alaska conservative leaders have come out against the measure, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Gov. Sean Parnell and U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan.

Even liberal-leaning politicians have taken a no stance, including the independent gubernatorial ticket of Bill Walker and Byron Mallott, as well as Sen. Mark Begich. Alaska Democratic Party spokesman Zack Fields said the party discussed taking a position on the measure but ultimately decided not to.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican, has publicly stated he believes marijuana legalization to be a states' rights issue. In May, he signed on to a bill 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, not the federal government.

Deborah Williams, co-chair of the opposition group Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2, is also the former head of the Alaska Democratic Party. She's not surprised to see leaders from both sides of the political spectrum opposing the issue. Williams said her stances on public safety, protecting children, education and economics are all reasons she's a Democrat -- and are the same reasons why she opposes Ballot Measure 2.

"This issue (of marijuana legalization) goes to core shared principles of the Democratic and Republican parties," Williams said. "And that is why so many prominent Democrats and Republicans oppose this."

Schulte said he understands why other Republicans might have problems with marijuana legalization, given the stigma associated with its use.

"I get why this sounds weird, but it's not weird at all," Schulte said.

He said many Republicans he's talked to are often working on bad information. Once they read the initiative, he said, it's clear it provides a solid start to creating a regulatory system.

Asked if whether Republicans, who rarely are in favor of increased regulation, would balk at creating more regulations, he said given the alternatives, it's Alaska's best option.

"The alternative is to let it remain a black market industry: untaxed, unregulated, unchecked," Schulte said. "Or tax it and regulate it and treat it just like alcohol. Given those two choices, I'm all about regulating it."

Burke, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2010, said it was tough for him to come out in support of the initiative; his conservative, faith-based values did not seem like an easy fit at first. But he said it's not his job to make decisions for other people, and that's not what the government should be doing when it comes to marijuana.

Burke said his views of supporting "liberty, responsibility and personal freedom" all fit into his beliefs on supporting marijuana legalization.

"For me that's what its all about, and I think Alaskans would agree," he said.

Bickford's appeal comes from her experience as a lifelong Republican and a mother. She said she believes that if the initiative goes through it will create safer communities and protect children.

"Black market dealers don't ask teen buyers to show ID," she noted.

Despite the different points of view, the coalition members say they agree that the initiative gives power back to Alaskans, and ultimately, adults.

"I drink alcohol. I can be trusted. I made it here in once piece," Bickford said during the press conference.

"I had wine with dinner last night," Schulte added.

"Oh, you did? That's excellent," Bickford replied. "The government let you do that? That's awesome."