In November 2, 43% of Alaskan voters said “yes” to marijuana legalization in their state, setting a national record for support of an initiative to tax and regulate cannabis. Although the initiative failed to pass, recent court rulings mean Alaskans can still legally possess a quarter-pound of bud, making it the most pot-tolerant state in the union.
Alaska has a long record of public debate and referendums on their state marijuana laws, with pot-related questions on the ballot in 1990, 1998, 2000 and 2004. Although recent court decisions mean the state already has the most tolerant pot possession laws in the US, with up to four ounces considered “personal” and legal to possess, activists have been trying to pass new laws by ballot initiative, which would fully legalize marijuana in Alaska.
In 1998, Alaskans backed a referendum measure to allow medical use of marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. The measure passed with 52% of the vote.
Buoyed by their victory, marijuana activists began a broader effort to fully legalize pot in Alaska through a ballot initiative planned for the 2000 election. The initiative would have allowed adults aged 18 and older to legally grow and buy marijuana. It would have also granted amnesty to all previously convicted of pot prisoners, and created a commission to look at reparations for those harmed by pot prohibition. Sadly, the initiative received only 41% of the vote, and was defeated.
Organizers started over and created a more limited version of the initiative for the 2004 campaign. This time, the initiative proposed an age limit of 21 years, and didn’t include any sort of amnesty or reparations. Armed with a bigger budget and a more narrowly focused initiative, organizers hoped they’d be able to break the magic 50% total this time. However, despite substantial financial backing from groups including the Marijuana Policy Project, the initiative faced formidable opposition from Alaska’s politicians, law enforcement and media.
Alaska Lieutenant Governor Loren Leman was a major opponent of the marijuana initiative. Leman initially tried to stop Alaskans from even voting on the issue; his office’s Division of Elections disqualified 194 of the signature booklets used to collect the signatures required to get the initiative onto the ballot. This meant organizers were about 7,000 signatures short of the 28,742 signatures required. It took 10 months of legal battling before the Anchorage Superior Court ordered Leman’s office to include 168 of the disqualified booklets, resulting in the signature target being met.
Ballot initiative organizers were later forced to file a second lawsuit against Leman for his role in drafting a “statement of opposition” in the Official Election Pamphlet that was presented to over 300,000 voters. The state’s Lieutenant Governor is supposed to be neutral in ballot initiatives, and the statement of opposition is supposed to be written by the groups which formally oppose an initiative measure.
The sole opposition group to Measure 2, chaired by the president of drug-testing firm Worksafe, didn’t submit an opposition statement on time. So Leman had his staff prepare a statement and submitted it on their behalf.
“It’s clear to us that he has crossed the line of neutrality, and if he has not directly violated his office, he most certainly has violated the spirit of his elected office,” said Tim Hinterberger, an organizer for Measure 2. “The only significant duty of the Lieutenant Governor is to run impartial elections, and he can’t even get that right.”
On October 26, a week before the election, the court ruled that by writing the opposing statement, Leman had indeed violated his obligation to assure the “integrity, credibility and impartiality” of state elections. However, the court didn’t provide for any punishment against the Lieutenant Governor, nor did it make him apologize to voters as the lawsuit had demanded.
Along with pressure from the Lieutenant Governor, the ballot initiative also faced vocal opposition from the Alaska State Medical Association, the Anchorage Police, the Alaska State Troopers, and Alaskan Governor Frank Murkowski. Murkowski’s wife told the media that passing the initiative would be “a cancer to our state.”
Perhaps the most damaging blow to campaign efforts came 10 days before the election, when a 16-year-old Alaskan boy was accused of killing his stepmother and storing her body in the freezer after a dispute about his marijuana use. The youth said he was “too stoned” to remember the details of the dispute, but police alleged that he killed her with a baseball bat and may also have sexually assaulted her.
The case prompted Alaskan media to run articles and editorials blaming youth violence on marijuana use. The deputy chief of the Anchorage Police Department said that the murder was an example of the “bad things” that happen when people smoke pot. A letter published in the Anchorage Daily News claimed that the teen murderer was “the face” of marijuana legalization.
David Finklestein, a former US Congressman and campaigner for Measure 2, said he was disappointed with the results. He claimed the campaign lost momentum in late October, as visits from the White House deputy drug czar Scott Burns and the high-profile murder “derailed the message” he was trying to get out.
“Alaskans have shown they are open to change, but they have to be confident that they know what they are going to get,” he added. “The final step will have to be even more moderate.”
In an interview with Cannabis Culture, Finklestein further explained the failure of Measure 2 by saying he thought the initiative was “a tough sell and too open-ended. There were no real restrictions and details to make people more comfortable with voting for it. Saying we’d have the legislature set the rules after the fact wasn’t definite enough for most people.”
Finklestein said that he and his colleagues have not given up on their fight for legalization. “We are encouraged by the success we’ve had and we’re regrouping our efforts.”
As for their future plans, Finklestein explains that, “Alaska’s pot laws are pretty good as they are, so it’s a matter of defending those laws and looking for opportunities to try to find a more moderate initiative that voters will approve in the future.”
Flip-flopping to freedom
The history of Alaska’s pot laws is complex as pot’s legal status has repeatedly shifted over the past 30 years.
Back in 1975, the Alaskan legislature passed a law reducing the penalty for possessing any amount of pot in private ? or up to one ounce in any public place ? to a $100 fine.
Just weeks after the law was passed, the Alaska Supreme Court expanded the state’s pot tolerance in a decision called Ravin v State. The court ruled that Alaska’s constitutional right to privacy protects personal possession and use in one’s own home. However, the right to privacy was limited to possession and did not protect amounts that were “indicative of intent to sell.” This amount was not defined at the time.
Seven years later, in 1982, the Alaskan legislature clarified the court decision by passing a bill which declared that possession of over four ounces indicated intent to sell, punishable as a Class B misdemeanor.
In 1990, Alaskans voted to re-criminalize marijuana in a state referendum. The referendum was heavily funded and backed by the federal government, with then-President George Bush and his drug czar William Bennett personally promoting the effort. During the last couple weeks of campaigning, the feds blitzed the airwaves with frightening anti-drug commercials designed to scare voters into voting with the status quo. The measure passed with 55% of the vote.
However, three years later a Superior Court Judge dismissed possession charges against Patrick McNeil, who had been charged with possession of less than 0.2 grams of pot. The judge ruled that the state constitution couldn’t be overturned by a referendum, and that the right to privacy and personal possession still stood.
Because the state did not appeal the decision to a higher court, it was not binding and was ignored by other judges for a decade. However, in 2003, North Pole resident David Noy challenged the law after he was convicted for five pot plants. Alaska’s Appeals Court agreed that voters could not overturn the state constitution, and ruled that the 1975 Ravin decision still stood.
Alaskan Attorney General Gregg Renkes tried to have the court decision overturned, but on September 9, 2004, the state’s Supreme Court rejected his appeal, effectively legalizing possession of four ounces in Alaska.
Although Renkes is sworn to uphold and protect Alaska’s constitution, he has vowed to overturn the Supreme Court decision by seeking an anti-pot amendment to the state’s founding document. “We’re not giving up,” Renkes told the media, saying that he would work to show state legislature that marijuana is harmful enough to warrant changing the constitution.
Although Alaska’s Governor is rabidly anti-pot, a constitutional amendment is unlikely, and as it stands Alaskans can possess up to a quarter pound of pot with no fear of persecution at the hands of state police.