Legal pot in Alaska

On August 29, Alaska’s Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that, “Alaska citizens have the right to possess less than four ounces of marijuana in their home for personal use.”
The case in question had been brought forward by David Noy, who was appealing his 2001 conviction on having five immature plants and 11 ounces of buds and stalk. The appellate court reversed his conviction, but upheld a state drug-dealer law, making it illegal to possess more than four ounces of marijuana in a home.

The judges’ ruling cites a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision (Ravin v. Alaska), that the Alaskan constitution’s privacy provisions protect the personal possession and use of marijuana in the home.

After this 1975 court decision, the Legislature had passed a law which deemed possession of more than four ounces as proof of intent to sell. Thus possession of less than four ounces was essentially legal in Alaska for 15 years.

However, a voter initiative to recriminalize marijuana, heavily backed by the federal government and then-drug czar William Bennett, narrowly passed in 1990.

It has taken until now for the validity of that vote to be challenged in court.

Trial court judges have thrown out possession charges based on this argument twice before, once in 1993, and once this past June. But in neither case did the state appeal to the higher court, and so the decisions did not set precedents.

This ruling essentially affirms that the voters did not have authority to change the state constitution. The ruling is binding on police and lower courts, meaning that no one can be convicted of pot possession in Alaska’s state courts, for now.

The Noy case was argued by Fairbanks attorney Bill Satterberg. When asked if the court ruling meant that marijuana was legal in Alaska, Satterberg said, “The answer is, under state law, yes; under federal law, no.”

Satterberg told the Fairbanks Daily News that the decision also allows personal cultivation in the home. Yet although someone could possess four ounces in their home, they could be arrested while transporting it there.

“I think the next question that is going to arise out of this is your right to privacy in a vehicle,” added Satterberg, explaining that he meant only for transporting cannabis, not for toking while driving.

Alaskan Attorney General Gregg Renkes has said he will petition the state Supreme Court for a review. However, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would overturn a ruling based on its own 1975 decision.

Officials in denial

Alaskan police and state officials were unhappy with the court ruling. Republican Governor Frank Murkowski called it “regrettable.”

In interviews with Alaskan police officials, the web journal Drug War Chronicle (DRCNet) found that despite the court ruling, police say it’s still “business as usual” when it comes to making possession busts.

Alaska’s Chief Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli told DRCNet that, “We are telling the police it is not legal to possess. We will continue to do as we have done, we will file charges and leave it up to the courts.”

“We are still enforcing the law the way we were before this,” confirmed the spokesman for the Anchorage Police Department, adding that “it’s still illegal under federal law.”

Yet according to attorney Satterberg, “if state law enforcement officers attempt to override state constitutional guarantees to prosecute federal laws, they will be treading on dangerous ground.”

The court ruling doesn’t stop federal police from making an arrest and charging an Alaskan with possession in their own home. However, it does legally bind state police, despite their wishing otherwise.

If the Supreme Court upholds the Noy decision, and it seems likely that they will, then Alaskans will once again have the most tolerant cannabis laws in America.