American Civil Liberties Union Sues the State of Alaska

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) – The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday sued the state of Alaska over a new law penalizing marijuana possession for personal use in the home. The civil liberties group alleges the new law is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. “Is marijuana so dangerous that it justifies restricting a fundamental right? The state thinks it’s yes, we think it’s no,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska.
The lawsuit also claims the law allows prosecution of people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes, which the Alaska Department of Law disputes. Along with the lawsuit, the ACLU is asking a Juneau Superior Court judge to block the law immediately with a temporary restraining and a preliminary injunction. Macleod-Ball said a hearing had not been set by Monday afternoon.

The law, which was just signed by Gov. Frank Murkowski on Friday, is an attempt to reverse a 30-year-old Alaska Supreme Court decision called Ravin vs. Alaska in which the court ruled the privacy rights of Alaskans trumped the harm the drug could cause. Later court decisions set a legal limit of 4 ounces that an individual can keep in the home.

Gov. Frank Murkowski for the past two years has been pushing through a bill to counter that ruling, understanding that the final decision will be left to the courts.

Under the new law, pot possession of 4 ounce s or more is a felony. Possession of less than 4 ounces but more than an ounce is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Less than one ounce is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

“The issue of marijuana appears destined to be resolved by the courts,” said Department of Law spokesman Mark Morones. “Now that there’s some science behind it, we know a lot more about it now and its potency now than when the Ravin decision was decided.”

The intent of the law is to curb the production and distribution of marijuana in Alaska, he said. Marijuana is dangerous whether there it’s in small or large amounts, he said. “If a substance is bad in and of itself, it’s bad whether you’re using it personally or going into wholesale production,” Morones said.

Gearing up for the court fight, Murkowski and the Legislature included in the bill a set of findings meant to prove that marijuana has increased in potency since the original Supreme Court decision, and therefore has become more dangerous. While the Legislature was considering the bill, opponents submitted thousands of pages of material supporting their position to lawmakers. But the material was never considered, nor did any of that information end up in the findings, according to the lawsuit.

“There was all this sort of reefer madness stuff coming from the government, saying this is crazy and we’ve got to restrict this,” Macleod-Ball said. “There was misinformation and disinformation because the state was trying to make a point that it’s more dangerous.”

Joining the ACLU as a plaintiff is an anonymous 54-year-old woman referred to as Jane Doe who uses marijuana to treat pain caused by a neurological illness called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, according to the lawsuit. She and another plaintiff, a 42-year-old woman referred to as Jane Roe, won’t list their real names because they fear criminal prosecution under the new law, the lawsuit says.

Jane Doe and the ACLU claim there is no exception under the new law for medical marijuana patients. Morones said medical marijuana users still have an affirmative defense that was already written into state law, and the new law will not affect them.

Macleod-Ball said the affirmative defense law does not shield medical marijuana users from being arrested. “If you don’t have your document handy, you get charged with the crime of possession. You’re left to defend yourself,” he said. “Just the fact that somebody’s ultimately successful in defending themselves in the charge doesn’t mean they’re not affected by this legislation.”

From the Anchorage Daily News

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