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Alaska Marijuana News

Everything you wanted to know about legalizing marijuana (but weren't sure you could ask)

On Nov. 4, Alaskans will decide whether the state will become the third in the nation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. It's controversial in that the drug is still illegal at the federal level, but also because it will essentially create a new industry -- or at least a newly legitimate industry -- in the state.

Consideration of legalization puts Alaska at the forefront of the movement to allow recreational marijuana sales, following Washington and Colorado. Oregon voters also will consider a similar measure and are set to vote on the same day Alaskans will.

Alaska is known for its live-and-let-live mentality and libertarian attitudes. So far, Alaska is the only state to endorse the private use of marijuana in the home, adding shades of gray to a legal area that is already far from black and white. Put those together, and it makes sense that Alaska would be one of the first states to look at whether or not the drug should be legalized.

However, the road to legalization is a complicated one. Those in favor of the initiative are quick to say that marijuana prohibition has failed and that it's time for the state to take back the black market and stop unnecessarily criminalizing people. Those against it say Alaska's drug policy is working and that legalization will only proliferate the drug, cause increased use -- especially among youth -- and be a burden on public health.

Questions go beyond whether you're a heavy toker or staunch abstainer. Besides figuring out how to deal with public safety and health are the larger questions about how to create an entire industry from scratch. Much can be learned from what's happening in Washington and Colorado, but there are unique issues only Alaska will face.

Below is a primer on what we know and don't know about the proposed law, drawing on legal history, precedents being set in other states and our own reporting, including a handy timeline that outlines major events in Alaska marijuana history. Expect this to be updated as we continue our reporting on what this measure could mean for Alaskans.

What’s this measure all about?

At its core, Ballot Measure 2 would legalize recreational marijuana use in Alaska, making the drug legal for those 21 years of age and older. It would allow the state to create a regulatory system for the substance, including creating a marijuana control board, potentially housed under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and tax the substance at $50 per ounce wholesale. The language of the initiative is closely based on the Colorado law that was passed in November 2012, also by citizen initiative.

Hasn’t this been considered in Alaska before?

Kind of. In 1998, 69 percent of voters agreed to legalize marijuana for medical use, but the initiative did not go as far as setting up methods for acquiring the plant (such as establishing dispensaries). In 2000, voters took another crack at legalization with Measure 5, which would have regulated the drug like alcohol and allowed residents over 18 to farm and possess their own supply. It would have granted amnesty to those serving time for marijuana offenses, purged the criminal records for many others and created an advisory group to study possible restitution. Ultimately, it failed to gain enough support, and was voted down 59.1 percent to 40.9 percent.

It even came up again in 2004, also as Ballot Measure 2, asking voters to consider regulating the substance like alcohol. The pro-legalization campaign spent $850,000 in polling, canvassing, staffing, mailers and print and broadcast advertisements before failing again.

But wait a second, isn’t marijuana already legal in Alaska?

Yes and no. In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Ravin v. State court decision that Alaskans' right to privacy protects the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the home.

In Alaska, that "home" part is an important distinction. While small amounts are legal in the home under the decision, it does not make transportation legal or possession anywhere else legal. That means having it in your car or on your person while in public is a big no-no.

Also, medical marijuana (per a 1998 voter initiative) is legal in the state. As of September, 1,857 medical marijuana users were registered with the state of Alaska.

For those people (or their caregivers), it's legal to have up to six plants, three of which can be mature, and have up to 1 ounce of the drug in their possession. With no legal way to purchase marijuana in Alaska, the only way medical marijuana patients can acquire the drug is by growing it themselves or by proxy.

Who gets arrested for marijuana in Alaska?

This is without a doubt one of the more complicated questions regarding the initiative and the drug's status in Alaska.

Depending on how much marijuana is involved, people can be charged with crimes as minor as a misdemeanor or as serious as a felony. Marijuana arrests are often made in conjunction with other crimes -- traffic stops, outstanding arrest warrants or probation violations. It is especially difficult to determine exactly how many people are being arrested because of marijuana, since drug charges in the state do not easily outline which drugs people are arrested for.

We do know that in 2013, a total of 296 pounds of marijuana and 2,351 plants were seized by Alaska State Troopers. They also made 669 drug-related charges/arrests -- though how many people exactly were charged is hard to deduce. Anchorage police seized 297 pounds of marijuana in 2013. On the North Slope, about 30 pounds were seized by borough police, with a village street value worth over $1.3 million, according to law enforcement.

A report by the ACLU last June found that Alaska spent $8.46 million on enforcing marijuana possession in 2010, at least according to numbers provided by the FBI. Of course, with legalization cropping up around the country, much has changed since 2010.

At the federal level, the Department of Justice asked prosecutors to not prosecute marijuana crimes in states where marijuana is legal, despite its ban at the federal level. The memo limits federal enforcement to eight priorities, including marijuana cases involving cartels, drug trafficking operations or those that sell to minors.

So if we legalize marijuana, how will it work?

That's another question that's tough to answer.

While Alaska has medical marijuana, there's no place to purchase it legally. That marks an important distinction between Alaska and Colorado and Washington. Colorado and Washington already had dispensaries in place for medical marijuana sales when those states legalized recreational pot use. (But even this is complicated; Colorado allowed its dispensaries to begin selling recreational marijuana at the beginning of the year, while Washington instead created a lottery system to set up recreational retail stores. Those stores only began selling pot in July. You can read all about that here.)

It's worth noting that the language of the Alaska initiative only lays a basic framework for a regulatory system. A marijuana control board could be set up and housed under the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, an agency currently overseen by the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

Local communities can opt out of allowing marijuana sales -- similar to how alcohol is banned in certain places -- however, unlike alcohol, which can be completely banned, the Ravin decision would still allow for people to have small amounts in the home.

Why is there a ‘local option’ for alcohol but not marijuana?

Because the "evidence showing the harmful effects of (alcohol) consumption is undisputed," according to the State Court of Appeals and "(t)he threat posed to society by widespread alcohol use is enormous," they wrote in Harrison v. State, a decision that upheld the constitutionality of Alaska's local option laws.

That's why banning alcohol and creating dry villages -- aka "local option laws" -- makes it OK to ban alcohol even in the home. In the Ravin decision, the court looked at the dangers of marijuana and concluded that it did not pose a widespread public risk when the decision was made. While communities can outlaw marijuana sales, the Ravin decision ultimately prevents the creation of completely dry communities for marijuana.

How many Alaskans use marijuana?

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has been surveying American drug use since 1971, 18.72 percent of Alaskans had used marijuana within a year of being asked, based on a three-year estimate from 2010 to 2012. That's above the national average estimate of 11.69 percent. When those surveyed were asked if they had used marijuana in the past month the number dropped to an estimated 12.34 percent, compared to 7.01 nationally.

A 2011 study from the same organization looked at the estimated number of people who had used marijuana in the prior year and found that 111,000 over the age of 12 had used the drug, with over 74,000 using it in the past month.

Could I smoke it in public?

Nope, nor could you consume it. In fact, you could be fined up to $100 under the proposed law for doing so.

How much money will the state make?

The state of Alaska says they don't know and have no plans to do a revenue forecast at this point, but proponents of the initiative say the state would make millions, at least if Colorado is any guide. So far, Colorado has collected almost $14 million in taxes. Most of that money will go toward drug treatment, schools and prevention programs. Those millions are far below the $33 million Colorado estimated would be made in the first year.

So is it going to cost the state money?

The state says it will, though exactly how much is a moving target. An estimate from the state in January found it would cost between $3.7 to $7 million in the first year. That cost estimate did not include any possible savings due to reduced enforcement, nor did it include any potential revenue. An estimate from local law enforcement found it could cost local authorities over $6 million in the first year alone.

Won’t taxes cover that?

Possibly, but it's worth noting that the initiative does not designate where the money will go, just that it would be added to the state's general fund; Alaska law prohibits citizens' initiatives from allocating money. It will take an act of the Alaska Legislature to decide where exactly the money will go.

It's worth noting that even if the tax brings in "millions" of dollars, it won't make much of a dent in Alaska's $6.9 billion unrestricted general fund, of which oil and gas taxes make up the majority.

Who’s for it?

The driving force behind the legalization effort is the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that's lobbied to change marijuana laws across the U.S. and was a key supporter of the Colorado initiative in 2012. So far, the organization has been the primary supporter of the effort, pumping more than $700,000 into the campaign single-handedly this year.

The local group fighting for legalization, The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol in Alaska, is chaired by Tim Hinterberger, a professor of developmental biology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization in Alaska. The group's campaign manager, Chris Rempert, is a Marijuana Policy Project staffer.

The campaign has come under fire as being portrayed as an outside interest group looking to push legalization on Alaskans. While the campaign has lacked notable public support from local leaders, they point to the 45,000 Alaskans who signed the petition to get the measure on the ballot. Backers needed only 30,000 to qualify for the election.

Who’s against it?

The biggest opposition group formed so far is Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2. It's chaired by Alaska Native leader Mike Williams Jr., an Iditarod musher from Akiak and chief of the Yupiit Nation. Deborah Williams, a former head of the Alaska Democratic Party who now works in youth advocacy, is also one of the leaders of the effort. The group has lagged far behind the pro-legalization campaign in terms of fundraising, with a little less than $42,000 in total donations this year, the largest being a $25,000 contribution from Chenega Corp. The campaign has found grassroots support from Alaska Native leaders, law enforcement, Alaska mayors and political leaders on both sides of the aisle, among other groups.

Don’t most people support it?

Polls have shown that nationally, about 55 percent of all Americans favor legalization. A Gallup poll in October 2013 found support steady at 58 percent. Here in Alaska, multiple polls have shown about the same level of support, including a poll commissioned by the Republican House Majority, which found that 52 percent of Alaskans polled support the measure. In February, Public Policy Polling found 55 percent of Alaskans were pro-legalization.

Summer polling shows Alaskans split on whether to legalize. Public Policy Polling data released in early August showed that of 673 voters polled, 44 percent were in favor of the initiative, 49 percent opposed and 8 percent unsure.

Those numbers show a slight decrease in support since May, when PPP showed 48 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed, and 7 percent unsure.

Recent polling suggests who will win is anyone's guess. Dueling polls commissioned by each campaign in October showed shocking differences in numbers. A Dittman Research poll commissioned by the No campaign found the initiative losing, with 43 percent in favor and 53 percent against. Another poll paid for by the Yes campaign found the initiative up, with 57 percent in favor and 38 percent against.

The opposition campaign also points to two recent polls showing Colorado support slipping among residents. State officials noted that it is still too early for a "definitive evaluation."

Isn’t it illegal at the federal level?

Indeed it is. This is one of the primary conflicts of the potential law and one that's being addressed in the other states that have legalized marijuana.

One of the biggest challenges, at least in Colorado, has been with banking. Many banks have been unwilling to accept cash from legal marijuana businesses due to a fear of reprimand at the federal level. In Colorado, a separate banking business has emerged to try to deal with the issue, including creating credit unions that specifically cater to marijuana businesses.

Meanwhile, legal businesses have been challenging the Internal Revenue Service for what they say are unfair penalties related to having cash-only businesses -- unfair since they can't have legal bank accounts. That appeal is currently working its way through the system.

How will its being illegal at the federal level be handled in Alaska?

That's really hard to say. Alaska State Troopers have said they are strictly beholden to state laws and would enforce those first and foremost.

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew said he has serious questions about the issue, noting that his officers are sworn to uphold local, state and federal law. Having it legal in one place but illegal at the higher level is a violation of their sworn oath, according to Mew, who oversees Alaska's largest police force.

I heard that they’re talking about changing something about ‘drug scheduling.’ What does that mean?

Marijuana is considered a Schedule I drug, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. That means the federal government includes it in the most dangerous class of drug along with heroin and ecstasy, with no accepted medical usage, a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.

After a citizen request to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Food and Drug Administration is looking at an eight-part test (per the Controlled Substances Act) that could designate the drug as Schedule II, meaning it finds some medical value in the drug, though it would still be included in the same class as methamphetamine and cocaine.

Ideally, proponents of legalization would like to have the drug completely "descheduled" -- taking it off the list completely. No matter what, don't expect any movement anytime soon. The last time marijuana was considered for rescheduling, in 2004, it took two years to complete the evaluation.

In an example of how much state law already deviates from federal law, Alaska views marijuana as a schedule 6A drug, meaning it has the lowest possible level of potential harm.

If it passes, when would it be legal?

The initiative would take effect 90 days after the election is certified (which will likely happen on Nov. 28, according to Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai). That means it would go into effect in late February 2015, at which point it would be legal to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana as well as six plants, three of which can be mature, for recreational purposes. Again, per the initiative, it would still be illegal to consume it in public. From there, the state has nine months to draft regulations (by November 2015). The board would have to start accepting business applications by February 2016 and issuing licenses by May 2016.

Where does the $50 tax figure come from?

According to Yes campaign spokesman Taylor Bickford, the $50 per ounce is based on amounts chosen in other states (including California, New York and Rhode Island) that have also considered a similar tax structure and on research conducted by the RAND Institute. Taxing it at $50 per ounce, Bickford said, ensures that state revenue is maintained even if wholesales prices are low or decrease.

Proponents also note that local governments could opt to include additional taxes at other points of sale.

Does marijuana lead to psychosis?

While marijuana has been linked to increased mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and even psychosis, studies have not necessarily established causality. A review article from the New England Journal of Medicine notes that it is "difficult to confidently attribute the increased risk of mental illness to marijuana use" due to other factors that could predispose someone to marijuana use and mental illness.

Does legalizing marijuana give more or less access to teens?

It's hard to say. According to the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the rate of teens who had used marijuana use in the 30 days prior to being surveyed dropped slightly, from 22 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2013, the first full year of recreational marijuana legalization. Those health officials note that the decline is not "statistically significant" and have worked to build a prevention campaign geared at teen marijuana use.

Opponents of legalization note that in Colorado, teen use rates increased following the legalization of medical marijuana in 2000. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Colorado teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have some of the highest current use rates in the nation (ranked fourth overall) based on 2012 average estimate. Alaska is ranked fifth in the same category.

Scientific articles are quick to point out that just having medical marijuana does not necessarily indicate a causal link and there is little data to show that medical marijuana has led to long-term increases in teen use.

Even that is complicated, according to Troy Payne, associate professor at the University of Alaska Justice Center. Medical marijuana means different things in different states. In Alaska it means a defense against misdemeanor charges for marijuana possession, while in states like California, there are dispensaries.

"All of that is to say that we really don't know what the likely effect of legalizing the recreation use of marijuana in the U.S. would be -- yet," Payne wrote in an email. "In a few years, we will have data from Washington and Colorado."

There are some questions about whether marijuana use can impair brain development of those under 21. The science remains inconclusive, though prevention campaigns in Colorado have emphasized this lack of evidence, asking teens to not be "lab rats."

What is this ‘shatter,’ ‘ear wax’ and ‘butane hash oil’ I keep hearing about?

These substances with the off-putting nicknames (which also include "green crack" and "budder," among others) are concentrated forms of marijuana. The opposition has been quick to condemn the concentrates, noting their increased potency levels. Notably, the opposition campaign has pointed out the dangers surrounding butane hash oil, which is made using flammable butane gas. Extraction of the oil -- which is considerably more potent that traditional marijuana -- has led to dozens of home explosions in Colorado.

Proponents of the initiative say the difference between concentrates and traditional leaf marijuana are no different than the differences between a pint of beer and a shot of hard liquor.

In Washington, hash oil producers are required to use a closed-loop system, which drastically reduces the chance of fire hazard, according to Washington Liquor Control Board spokesperson Mikhail Carpenter. As of October, no hash oil producers had been licensed by the board. Those involved in home hash oil explosions have faced harsh penalties.

In Colorado, some municipalities have opted to impose regulations limiting the personal manufacturing of butane hash oil, in an effort to discourage home chemists from trying to distill the oil, as well as limits on advertising and labeling edibles that are also included in Alaska's initiative as part of the rule-making process.

When are we voting?

The measure will be included on the general election ballot, Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the court that upheld Alaska's local option laws. It was the Alaska Court of Appeals, not the the Alaska Supreme Court.

This story was updated with new questions and information on Oct. 24, 2014.

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