Vote yes on Ballot Measure 2; end Alaska's failed prohibition of marijuana

Ballot Measure 2 is an initiative that would tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana in Alaska. Adults over age 21 could possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and constitutional protections allowing home cultivation would be preserved.

Most Alaskans recognize it's irrational to continue spending precious law enforcement resources prohibiting adults from using marijuana, a substance far safer than alcohol both to the individual and society, but some are under the false impression that marijuana is already legal here. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the ACLU, 81 percent of all drug arrests in Alaska are for marijuana possession, the highest rate in the country. The Anchorage Police Department alone conducts marijuana seizures at a rate of two to three per day (roughly 1,000 every year) and 78 percent of those seizures are for less than one ounce. That's time and money spent processing marijuana seizures and arrests that could be spent going after violent criminals.

Since Alaska has the highest marijuana use rates in the country already, it makes far more sense to put responsible businesses in charge of this multimillion-dollar market rather than leave it in the hands of criminals. Health and safety regulations, with reasonable restrictions on product sizes and advertising, are all part of the plan.

Much of what we've heard from opponents in recent weeks has been rehashed language taken from one medical journal article that summarizes the same supposed adverse health effects of marijuana use that prohibitionists have been touting for generations. As a medical educator and scientist who has followed this field for many years, I noticed that all those writers avoided a balanced, rational discussion, instead cherry-picking questionable studies and out-of-context statistics that support their cause.

I've also noticed that some commentators opposing marijuana have deep connections to the alcohol industry, despite its being a far more harmful substance than marijuana by any objective measure. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for example, is the co-chair of the "Small Brewers Caucus" in Washington, D.C., which she described in a May Anchorage Press interview as "educating Members of Congress and their staff about legislation, regulations, and other unique issues faced by small American breweries. We have our brewpubs and little breweries giving us identity and local pride aspects to their communities. I think it's great to build community or regional pride in something that's truly Alaska grown."

If our senior senator feels that a legal, regulated alcohol industry should remain a cherished part of the Alaska economy, then why can't we learn to look at marijuana the same way? I hope the audacity of her writing a biased commentary to try and convince voters to keep marijuana illegal, while working in an official capacity to grow the market for a much more harmful substance, was as striking to other readers as it was to me.

Medical research is just one area where our opponents distort the facts. Regulation is another. They would have you believe that without providing all the regulatory details now, before the election, Alaska will end up with inadequate safeguards. They say that once approved, the initiative and its regulations can't be modified. This is simply fear-mongering. The initiative functions to enable legislation, and all Alaskans will have a chance to shape the state's regulatory system, much as Alaska small towns have done with local-option alcohol regulation.

Opponents of Ballot Measure 2 insist that the sky is falling in Colorado after voters there adopted regulation of marijuana. However, the statistics they offer on Colorado's motor vehicle accidents, teen use, crime, homelessness, etc., have all been presented with intentionally misleading lack of context, or are just plain wrong. Find someone who's been to Colorado lately and ask if they saw any real problems. Both Colorado and Washington state are responding nimbly to their citizens' concerns over legal marijuana. By the time sales would begin here, a year after Ballot Measure 2 passes, Alaska would have extensive experience to draw on.

So instead of arguing over statistics and trivialities, let's start with a big-picture fact we can all agree on: Marijuana isn't going away. Whether we regulate it or not, marijuana and concentrates will be available in Alaska from somebody. Ballot Measure 2 will put all Alaskans in charge of it and generate more than $72.5 million in tax revenue in the first five years. That's money currently enriching the underground market that could instead improve infrastructure and education, including honest drug awareness and prevention programs.

We reach consensus on public policy issues like marijuana not by reading newspaper op-eds full of misleading statements and insufficient context but by letting experts dispassionately examine the evidence in its entirety. Since the 1970s, more than a dozen government-appointed commissions have examined the effects of marijuana and made policy recommendations. Overwhelmingly, the conclusions have been the same: marijuana prohibition causes more social damage than marijuana use, and possession for personal use should no longer be a criminal offense. It makes far more sense to look at marijuana as a public health issue and to ask: How do we define marijuana abuse, as opposed to use? Under current law, all marijuana use constitutes abuse -- a standard we don't impose on people who use tobacco or alcohol.

Perhaps the greatest harm of prohibition is the disregard for all laws that it creates. A 1982 National Research Council report emphasized: "Alienation from the rule of law in democratic society may be the most serious cost of current marijuana laws… Young people who see no rational basis for the legal distinction between alcohol and marijuana may become cynical about America's political institutions and democratic process." This is equally true 30 years later.

Marijuana prohibition carries heavy costs to the individual and to society. When Alaskans go to the polls Nov. 4, we'll be deciding whether more harm would be done, overall, by retaining ineffective, harmful prohibition, or by overcoming our fear of change, and moving to a system of regulation and taxation.

Dr. Tim Hinterberger is a professor in the School of Medical Education at University of Alaska Anchorage, with teaching responsibilities in anatomy and neuroscience and a research program in molecular embryology. He chairs the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

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.

Tim Hinterberger

Dr. Tim Hinterberger is a professor in the School of Medical Education at University of Alaska Anchorage, with teaching responsibilities in anatomy and neuroscience and a research program in molecular embryology. He also serves on the board of the Alaska Public Health Association.