Breaking Ground In Alaska
Alaska has flip-flopped on its marijuana laws a few times over the last 30 years, starting back in 1975, when it became legal for adult Alaskans to possess small amounts of marijuana in their homes for personal use.
In 1990, voters criminalized all amounts of pot by ballot initiative. Then, last year, the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed that vote, saying privacy rights guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution can't be taken away by voters or legislators.
Recently, the Alaska Supreme Court let that ruling stand by refusing to review the case. Then, the Court of Appeals ruled that police cannot execute a search warrant in a person's home for possessing small amounts of marijuana, defining that limit as four ounces.
State prosecutors tried to argue that the earlier decisions did not legalize marijuana, but that the decisions created a defense that people can use when charged with possession. They tried to argue that marijuana possession is still a criminal offense and that a warrant can be issued if there is probable cause. But the court dismissed the argument, saying the earlier decisions defined a constitutional limitation to the government's ability to prohibit marijuana possession.
Attorney General Gregg Renkes, not happy with the rulings, said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court, because he was "fearful that this will shut down effective investigation of marijuana growing cases." Renkes said, "It virtually prohibits us from getting search warrants to investigate marijuana home growing cases." The Alaska Supreme Court denied Renkes' petition.
However, Renkes is "not giving up." He wants to take his case to the legislature in order to prove that marijuana is a harmful enough drug to warrant amending the constitution.
"The state has been denied an opportunity to present a record of the harmfulness of marijuana," Renkes claims. "The exception of privacy at home does not extend to cocaine because the state has proven it's harmful. It outweighs the right to privacy."
But Renkes' crusade may be proven moot if voters pass Ballot Measure No. 2 scheduled for Nov. 2, 2004, which would remove all criminal and civil penalties for people 21 or older who "grow, use, sell or give away marijuana or hemp products."
According to Tim Hinterberger, an associate professor of the biomedical program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and organizer of Ballot Measure No. 2, "Alaska clearly has values of independence and responsibility and fairness that are different than the rest of the country. Clearly marijuana prohibition doesn't work, everyone knows that and it's time to try and find a different way."
The Ballot Measure No. 2 campaign opened its headquarters in Anchorage and started hitting the airwaves with its message. "We have ads on TV, we have ads on radio and we have campaigners doing door-to-door in selected areas," said Hinterberger.
Organizers of Ballot Measure No. 2 are hoping to make this measure more appealing than the last one in 2000. Previously, proponents wanted the drug to be legal for those 18 and older. They also wanted the government to free some jailed inmates convicted of marijuana crimes and set up a commission to consider reparations for them. But voters turned the initiative down.
Ballot Measure No. 2 does away with amnesty and reparations and increases the legal age to 21. It allows for government regulation and taxation of cannabis similar to that of tobacco or alcohol. It also allows for laws limiting use in public and to protect public safety, such as prohibiting people from driving while under the influence of pot.
If the initiative passes, Alaska will become the only state where it's legal to smoke, buy and sell pot. This is significant, for at any given time, over 800,000 people are in prison for pot crimes in the US, while an astounding 100 million people claim to have smoked pot at least once. This disparity between public use and incarceration proves that the current drug policy isn't working. It's time to try something new. And if Alaska breaks new ground, other states will surely follow with their own laws.