After years of debate -- and decades of semi-legal status -- Alaskans will finally be able to light up legally. On Tuesday, voters approved Ballot Measure 2, an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in Alaska, by about 52 percent in favor to 48 percent opposed, with 100 percent of the state's precincts reporting.
With the vote, Alaska joins Washington, Colorado and Oregon -- the latter of which also approved a similar initiative Tuesday -- as the first states in the country to legalize pot. Washington and Colorado approved their own initiatives in 2012.
The initiative will not become law until 90 days after the election is certified, which is expected to be in late November. Per the law, the state can then create a marijuana control board -- expected to be housed under the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. That group will then have nine months to craft regulations dealing with how marijuana businesses will operate.
The initiative was years in the making. Alaska voters considered similar measures in 2000 and 2004. Both failed, though each indicated a measure of support for legalization. Measure 5 in 2000 took 40.9 percent of the vote; Ballot Measure 2 in 2004 gained a few more points, with 44 percent of the electorate voting in favor of it.
Supporters expressed relief Tuesday as results streamed in.
"It looks good for us, but there are still a lot of votes to be counted" said Taylor Bickford, spokesman for the pro-legalization Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, as the results ticked up to 44 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday evening.
But by 2 a.m. Wednesday, with all precincts reporting, the pro-legalization crowd was declaring victory.
"Now that the campaign is over, it's time to establish a robust regulatory system that sets an example for other states," Bickford said in a prepared statement. "A regulated marijuana market will generate millions of dollars in tax revenue and create good jobs for Alaskans. Law enforcement will be able to spend their time addressing serious crimes instead of enforcing failed marijuana prohibition laws."
What had seemed like an easy win earlier in the year appeared to slip in the weeks leading up to the election. Polls showed support for the measure at over 50 percent earlier in the year, but that appeared to decline over the summer and into fall. Dueling polls commissioned by both sides of the campaign showed striking differences between the two, making it anyone's guess which side would ultimately come out ahead in the vote.
The Yes campaign fought vigorously to get out their message of the failures of marijuana "prohibition" across the state. They contended that Ballot Measure 2 would regulate and tax a substance already being used by over 100,000 Alaskans each year. Doing so would begin to eliminate the black market and prevent people from being arrested for possessing or using a substance many argue is objectively safer than alcohol.
The campaign noted that Ballot Measure 2 would allow for regulation of marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol by controlling the types of products sold, prohibiting sales to those under 21 and taxing marijuana at $50 per ounce wholesale.
Proponents also championed the idea of reconciling what co-sponsor Tim Hinterberger, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate, called "illogical" laws.
A resolution to Alaska's complicated marijuana laws
Alaska's relationship with marijuana has long been a complicated one. The 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision in Ravin v. State that Alaskans' right to privacy protected the possession of a small amount of marijuana in the home effectively legalized the substance.
Despite that status, the legality of marijuana has remained in question. The Ravin ruling has been interpreted to be narrow, protecting use only in the home. Alaska statutes prohibit the possession of even a small amount of marijuana. Making things more complicated are the state's medical marijuana laws, approved by voters in 1998. Patients can be prescribed the drug, however, with no dispensaries there is no legal way to acquire it.
Opponents of legalization agreed some reform to Alaska's marijuana laws might be appropriate, but that vagaries of Ballot Measure 2 made the initiative inappropriate for Alaska.
Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2, the group opposing the measure, had concerns over the language of the initiative -- specifically that it left too much up to the regulatory process. With so many questions unanswered in the initiative's language, they voiced concerns over possible increases in marijuana use. They argued that more use would lead to more problems related to increased teen access, public health risks, potent marijuana concentrates and additional cost and resource burdens on public safety departments.
The No campaign expressed frustration with the results Tuesday night.
"We're disappointed in the numbers right now," said No campaign deputy treasurer Deborah Williams, but added, "We're very proud of the campaign we ran."
"The campaign pointed out a lot of needed areas for amendments and improvements ... the people in this campaign are committed to doing what is best for Alaska," she said.
But as the results continued to arrive and the gap became slightly more narrow as the night wore on, Williams expressed some optimism.
As she left Election Central at 11:30 p.m., Williams had her phone in hand and was refreshing election results every few minutes. "We keep narrowing the gap," she said. "Obviously we have a lot of ground to make up."
That gap never fully closed.
Despite its late start in the campaign cycle, the No campaign gained ground in the lead-up to Election Day. Focusing on a statewide grass-roots effort that included a long list of organizations and individuals opposing the measure, the group surged in fundraising down the home stretch. The No campaign was quick to note that the $148,000 it raised since April is 100 percent Alaska-funded -- a stark comparison to the Yes side, whose primary funding came through the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.
The group, a national nonprofit that advocates for marijuana reform across the country and was the primary sponsor behind Colorado's measure, funneled almost $800,000 into Alaska over the course of the campaign.
That funding base allowed the pro-legalization side to outspend their opponents nearly 9-1.
"Alaska is fiercely independent, and I think regardless of how tonight turns out Alaskans understand that we were part of a national strategy" surrounding pot legalization, said No campaign spokeswoman Kristina Woolston.
"I think at the end of the day we were all happy with the group of Alaskans that came together," she said.
What they lacked in spending they made up in notable public support. As the opposition rallied supporters -- from Alaska Native organizations, public safety officials, Alaska mayors, local communities and political leaders on both sides of the aisle -- supporters of legalization struggled against what they perceived as a long-standing stigma against marijuana.
That stigma didn't play out as much behind the voting curtain, with many Alaskans coming out in favor of the measure. Results showed supporters ahead from the start, with a lead they never relinquished as returns continued to stream in.
Tim Hinterberger, co-sponsor of the initiative, said the tide is changing when it comes to marijuana perceptions, for basic reasons. He pointed to wins in other states proving demographics are shifting on the substance, particularly among young voters.
"More people are voting who have experience with marijuana or know someone who uses marijuana," he said. "The older people who don't, they're dying off."
No clear voting bloc
Earlier in the day, one thing was clear: When it came to voting on Ballot Measure 2, party affiliation meant zilch.
In other states, marijuana legalization generally falls along party lines. Democrats tend to favor it, with Republicans opposed. But in Alaska, affiliation didn't seem to matter. Politicians on both sides of the aisle publicly opposed the measure, while supporters actively targeted conservative voters leading up to the election.
That targeting may have worked. Husband and wife Larry and Lauren Larsen of Fairview both described themselves as conservative voters and both voted in favor of legalizing marijuana.
Lauren Larsen thought police did a good job of dealing with violent crime, but didn't do so well when it came to property crimes. She attributes that to being overworked, and thought if marijuana was legalized it would at least free up some police resources.
Larry Larsen said the couple, who do not use marijuana, know people in Barrow who use pot.
"It's everywhere, it's no problem for people to get it," he said outside of his polling place at Anchorage's Central Lutheran Church. "If (marijuana enforcement) isn't working, then the hell with it."
The biggest issue that drove Rebecca DeGoroot to the polls was another ballot initiative, one which would raise the minimum wage and appeared to be winning handily Tuesday. DeGoroot has worked as manager, overseeing low paid workers and would like to see them paid more. She also voted in favor of the Bill Walker-Byron Mallott gubernatorial ticket.
But she didn't support Ballot Measure 2.
"I think there are more important things to worry about," she said in Fairview Tuesday afternoon.
"I wouldn't like to see it pass but I think it will," said Larry Mooney, waving a sign for Democratic Sen. Mark Begich Tuesday morning at the intersection of Minnesota Drive and Benson Boulevard.
Fairview resident Davy Mousseaux voted for conservative candidates straight down the ticket, but voted yes to legalize marijuana.
He said while he doesn't use it now, he has used it in the past and thought that legalization could help communities.
"Maybe if they legalize it there won't be so many problems," he said. "It's not like heroin or cocaine."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing