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With Alaska marijuana vote near, the result appears to be anyone's guess

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 31, 2014

Independent Alaskans, known for their libertarian streak, were a key reason activists threw their support behind Alaska's effort to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014. But with only days until the vote, it's anyone's guess whether those live-and-let-live folks will go to the polls and which way they'll vote.

Polls have been inconsistent, with wildly different results, in the weeks leading up to Nov. 4. Some show that support -- nationally and in Alaska -- has been above 50 percent. But whether that will mean success for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska remains to be seen.

"I think it's going to be real close," said Tim Hinterberger, co-sponsor of the initiative. "I don't think anyone can say anything other than that."

Hinterberger, who has been involved in Alaska marijuana reform for decades, thinks the measure will do better than in previous votes and leans toward the initiative passing. But he's not making any predictions.

"We've been holding our breath all along, especially after 10 years," he said, referring to a similar initiative in 2004 that failed, 56 percent against to 44 percent in favor.

Deborah Williams, treasurer with Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2, the campaign that formed in April to oppose the initiative, believes the measure will fail Tuesday night.

She said the campaign's grassroots effort across the state to tell people what they believe Ballot Measure 2 does will ultimately lead them to success.

"Once people had the opportunity to learn about it, they said, 'No, this is not the right initiative for Alaska now,' " she said.

Hinterberger counters that that sort of thinking was the biggest obstacle the campaign has faced, one rooted in a stigma against marijuana.

"For a lot of undecided voters, the argument that 'let's just wait, let's just keep waiting and keep prohibition going' " has had resonance, he said. "That's an easy way to rationalizing voting no without being opposed to it."

What it’s all about

At its core, Ballot Measure 2 asks Alaskans to approve "an act to tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana." But there's much more to it.

Proponents of the measure say the eight-page initiative -- too short, according to opponents -- allows the state to set up a basic framework for regulating marijuana. They expect the rulemaking process and any amendments to the law following its passage to be strict.

The initiative, if passed, would legalize recreational use of marijuana for those 21 and older. Beyond the age range, there are similarities to how the state controls alcohol. The initiative would allow the state to set up a marijuana control board, similar to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board currently housed under the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. The initiative would also tax marijuana at $50 per ounce wholesale.

The initiative allows that board to take nine months to formulate regulations. Within that period it will set up a process for issuing growing and retail licenses, outline security requirements, labeling issues, restrictions on advertising, and health and safety regulations for marijuana products, among other things.

It also allows a provision for communities to opt out of allowing commercial operations or retail stores.

Already semi-legal

The Yes campaign says Ballot Measure 2 would reconcile already confusing Alaska laws regarding marijuana.

In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in Ravin v. State that the right to privacy protects a small amount of marijuana in the home. However, per state statute, it is a misdemeanor to use or display a small amount of marijuana.

Also adding confusion is Alaska's medical marijuana laws, approved by voters in 1998. Under those laws, patients registered with the state (or their proxy) can possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and six plants, three of which can be mature.

However, no system was ever set up for dispensing marijuana, and the only way patients can access the drug is by obtaining it through the black market.

If Ballot Measure 2 passes, Alaska would follow Colorado and Washington in legalization of recreational marijuana, with Oregon and Washington, D.C., also both considering such measures on Tuesday's ballot. The eight-page Alaska initiative is modeled after Colorado's, passed in 2012. Washington state voters passed a legalization measure the same year, though its measure was outlined in dozens of pages of law.

During Alaska's debate over Ballot Measure 2, much has been made of Colorado's and Washington's experiences so far, which couldn't have been more different.

Colorado allowed its well-established medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling recreational marijuana at the beginning of this year following a rulemaking process that resulted in 136 pages of law, with no limits as to how many businesses could open.

Washington, which also had medical marijuana dispensaries in place, opted for a different approach. Essentially starting from scratch, the Washington Liquor Control Board strictly limited the number of licenses a grower or retailer could hold. That's resulted in a slow rollout process, with the first marijuana retail stores opening in July. A total of 334 businesses are allowed in the state. In Seattle, population 650,000, only 21 businesses are allowed. As of October, only two had opened.

Concerns over commercialization

The No campaign has run a fierce ground game in Alaska, pulling support from across the state. The No campaign points to a long list of organizations opposing the measure. Big help has come from Alaska Native leaders, law enforcement, Alaska mayors and political leaders on both sides of the aisle, among other groups.

They championed that support by delivering their message across the state. The campaign has voiced numerous concerns over how the regulatory process will work.

Alaska statutes allow initiatives to be amended by the state constitution as long as they do not constitute a repeal of the measure. The No campaign has argued that limiting things like the production of butane hash oil, advertising restrictions and issues related to communities' "local option" -- laws that prohibit the sale and possession of alcohol -- would add up, essentially causing a repeal of the measure.

According to attorneys unaffiliated with the campaign, adding amendments dealing with public safety issues is unlikely to be a repeal, since the measure specifically outlines regulation. It's a point proponents of the measure have tried to champion.

The No campaign also argued that the measure goes beyond just allowing recreational marijuana, and that it would in effect create an entire commercial industry.

Those concerns about commercialization tie into what they believe will be increases in youth use, public health and public safety problems, and fiscal irresponsibility.

They've often pointed to Colorado as a lesson on how not to do things, citing increases in stoned driving, hash oil explosions, concerns over potent marijuana concentrates and edible overdoses, and a lack of tax revenue, among others.

They've also sharply criticized the Yes side for its Outside funding sources, noting that their campaign is funded solely from Alaskans' donations. To date, the No campaign has received more than $148,000 in contributions, all from in-state. In comparison, the Yes campaign has received more than $866,000, with big donations coming from the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance.

Reconciling illogical laws

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska has not shied away from its association with the Marijuana Policy Project, which has been the primary funder behind the initiative. Hinterberger, one of the co-sponsors, said marijuana prohibition was forced on Alaskans by the federal government, and there's no reason why a national group shouldn't step in to help repeal that effort.

"The propaganda against marijuana has been going on for decades; it's an effort of the federal government," Hinterberger said. "It's impossible for us to have an effective (local) campaign against all of that."

The Yes campaign has pointed to support from the 45,000 people who signed the petition to get it on the ballot, well over the 30,000 needed, as well as thousands of volunteers across the state.

But they've courted few endorsements from public figures, in striking contrast to the opposition. With the exception of Forrest Dunbar, a Democrat running for U.S. Congress, all candidates for statewide office have opposed Ballot Measure 2.

Hinterberger and others in the campaign have said they've heard privately from many who support the measure but who fear reprisal for speaking out in favor of it.

The campaign also argues that marijuana is already in Alaska and that it's not going to create the massive industry opponents argue the law will produce, citing the slow rollout in Washington state as an example.

They have argued that legalizing marijuana would keep marijuana from youths through strict regulation, eliminate the black market over time -- keeping money away from drug dealers and directing dollars toward prevention, public health and public safety -- and stop needless arrests of people for using a substance they consider safer than alcohol.

Campaign backlash

Hinterberger said when the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana in Alaska began advocating for the measure, organizers wondered who could possibly oppose it.

"We thought, 'No one believes reefer madness.' Yet that's what we ended up facing," Hinterberger said.

People involved with the No campaign counter that they have never tried to fear-monger, though at times their arguments have not been taken well by proponents of the measure.

Williams noted numerous incivilities coming from proponents of legalization. The apex came when Charlo Greene, a KTVA-TV reporter, used an obscenity and quit live on air to focus on her own marijuana business.

In debates and hearings that followed, the campaign found itself fighting sharply personal criticism. Williams called the ad hominem attacks "un-Alaskan" and thinks that reaction hasn't played well with undecided voters.

"I think Alaskans have reacted against that," Williams said. "That's not how we treat Alaskans."

Williams said she's had three magnetic bumper stickers supporting the No campaign disappear from her car. They even intercepted someone at the Bear Tooth marijuana debate attempting to take the same sticker off Kristina Woolston's car. Signs have been spray-painted (a green Y over the No to create a "Yo on 2" sign), knocked over and bashed in.

The Yes campaign has dealt with its own negative reactions. Spokesman Taylor Bickford said nearly 50 signs disappeared from the Kenai Peninsula and others have been knocked over across the state.

Bickford also argued that part of the reactions stemmed from deeply personal feelings over the issue. He noted that the No side often condemned people for using the substance they feel is a safe, adult choice.

"People are frustrated with current policies and sometimes you see that manifest itself in ways that are counterproductive," Bickford said after a contentious Anchorage ballot measure hearing in September. "But these people are all coming from the same place."

What this means for the future

For the most part, Alaska followed a similar path to legalization seen in other states, according to Erik Altieri, communication director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He said the arguments, on both sides, were not all that different from arguments presented in Colorado and Washington.

What surprised him was the lack of partisanship in the election. Typically the lines are split more closely, with Republicans against the measure and Democrats for it. But that didn't happen in Alaska. Campaign spokesman Bickford has a long history in Republican politics, and the campaign focused some of its efforts on getting out the vote to conservatives. In contrast, Williams, with the No campaign, is the former head of the Alaska Democratic Party.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which donated $100,000 to the Yes campaign in July, said marijuana wins in Alaska and Oregon will undoubtedly lead to wins in other, larger states during the 2016 election.

Nadelmann said Thursday he wasn't sure how Alaska would turn out. What had seemed an easy win earlier in the year was clearly in "roll the dice mode" now.

That's happened in Oregon too, he said. While either a loss or win in Alaska will likely affect national momentum, Nadelmann said other states will still move forward in 2016, including California. The ultimate goal? To put pressure on the federal government to decriminalize the drug at the highest level.

If it loses, local activists could come back but Nadelmann said Alaskans shouldn't expect to see national organizations making the same donations they did before.

"If either state loses by a small amount, and it's because young people don't turn out, two years from now it'll be an easy win," he said. "But enthusiasm will be less."

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