Alaska should not rush into pot legalization

As with all tight elections these days, a small number of independent, fair-minded voters will be the ones who determine if Alaska will get marijuana retail stores under Ballot Measure 2.

I don't think these swing voters will be persuaded by unrealistic pro-marijuana promises, such as saying pot shops would create 10,000 jobs and taxes will build new schools. And they'll easily dismiss the conspiracy theories that long-time marijuana users often spout.

But one argument no doubt appealing to any reasonable voter is the very first sentence of Ballot Measure 2 that says police should focus on violent and property crime, rather than marijuana. A related theme is that adults with small amounts for private use shouldn't go to prison.

Both of these are valid points, but voters need to know if these arguments reflect reality. In other words, aren't the police already keenly focused on violent crimes? The answer is yes, based on my 30 years in criminal prosecution for the Alaska Attorney General's Office.

But I'll be the first to admit I can't prove it to you statistically, because a detailed analysis of police reports and court records just hasn't been done yet in Alaska.

Any Alaska police chief will say they have plenty to do without focusing on small marijuana cases. Obviously they can't ignore drivers using marijuana, or street sellers, and we don't want them to. But if there's truly a concern that police may spend too much time on marijuana, we shouldn't just make assumptions, but instead look at actual police practices. If a local police department needs to change, the municipality can do that. There's no need to bring in retail marijuana sales statewide, just to affect what marijuana supporters want us to believe their city police do.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report says very few people are imprisoned for simple marijuana possession. They don't count people committing other crimes, such as burglary or drug trafficking or DUI. They also exclude probation or parole violators. That left less than one-half of one percent of the prison population in the U.S. convicted only of simple marijuana possession, and only one-tenth of one percent were first offenders.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics report is several years old, and it's fair to ask if it applies to Alaska. The only way to answer that question is to do the research.

In March I was invited by the UAA Justice Center to participate in a panel discussion on marijuana legalization. So I took a quick look at the last few years of prosecution records.

One case leaped out to me immediately because it showed a six-month sentence for misdemeanor marijuana possession. When I looked at all the surrounding facts, I discovered the grand jury had initially indicted the person for the felony crime of distributing marijuana to three minors (ages 12, 12 and 14). The person also had several other charges in separate cases, including an assault on a police officer, but you wouldn't know about that if you only looked at the marijuana case. After plea bargaining, the final sentence, which at first looked harsh, might even be considered lenient. My point is that the official record showed six months for misdemeanor marijuana "possession," but that was only the tip of the iceberg.

It's difficult to prove statistically that people aren't going to prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana because you have to look at the background facts in each case. And that takes time and lots of college research assistants.

If a study of sentencing practices shows problems with marijuana cases, then I'll be the first to urge the Alaska Legislature to hold hearings and take action.

The UAA Justice Center was interested in doing this kind of study in Alaska, but they just didn't have time before the election.

Alaska voters need reliable facts, based on actual data. Until then, the rush to enact Ballot Measure 2 is a potentially dangerous social experiment, based on supposition and one-line slogans, rather than on what's really happening in Alaska.

Dean Guaneli worked for the Alaska Attorney General's Office from 1976 to 2006. He drafted Alaska's medical marijuana law in 1999, and its non-medical marijuana re-criminalization law in 2006. He is retired in Juneau.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.