First marijuana was decriminalized, then medical marijuana was made available and now, voters in Alaska may have the chance next year to make marijuana completely legal and regulated like alcohol. Campaigners for 99Hemp, as they've dubbed their initiative, say they have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November, 2000 ballot.
The signature gathering for the initiative is sponsored by Austin, Texas businessman Michael Kleeman of the Texas Hemp Coalition, and the initiative drive is being run in Alaska by Libertarian activist Al Anders and author Jack Herer. Herer is the author of "The Emperor Has No Clothes," a book detailing the many uses of industrial hemp and probably the all-time best selling book about marijuana. Campaigners chose Alaska because of the relatively small number of signatures required to place a question before the voters, and because of the state's tradition of supporting the right to privacy.
In the 1970's, the state decriminalized marijuana. In 1990, a re-criminalization initiative passed, but three years later a judge threw out that result, ruling that the initiative was unconstitutional. And just last year Alaskans voted to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
Recent victorious medical marijuana campaigns in several states were preceded by careful opinion polling that deemed them likely to succeed, but Anders said 99Hemp had conducted no polling on the issue of marijuana legalization, and does not plan to do so. That news prompted a warning from National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law's executive director, Keith Stroup, who told The Week Online that while he feels the Alaska initiative is well-intentioned and fully supports the campaign's efforts, "They are flying blind not doing any polling."
But Anders said the campaign could count on the 46 percent of voters who voted against a recent effort to re-criminalize marijuana, and build on that number with an aggressive voter registration effort. Since marijuana is so controversial, Anders doesn't think participants would be honest with their pollster. "Polling on this is like polling on David Duke," he explained. If the initiative goes down to defeat, Anders won't worry about the bad publicity, he said. He would simply try harder the next year.
Anders' 46 percent base may be inflated because support for decriminalization does not necessarily translate into support for legalization. Polling conducted around the country indicates many voters support decriminalization and yet remain adamantly opposed legalization. A legalization initiative in Oregon in 1986 received only 27 percent of the vote.
Others in the drug policy reform movement say Alaska is not as liberal as it was ten years ago. Conservatives connected with the oil boom have moved in, weakening the state's libertarian quotient. A recent statewide poll found that 46 percent of Alaskans identified themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative," but that same poll found that 64 percent of Alaskans said yes when asked, "Have you ever been with someone who's smoked marijuana?" Pollsters say this number is extremely high and indicates tacit approval of marijuana smoking.
But marijuana legalization may not be the toughest sell for 99Hemp's campaigners. Beyond clearing the records of all people prosecuted for marijuana criminal offenses, the text of the initiative calls for a committee to be formed that will explore the possibility of reparations "for all persons who were imprisoned, fined or had private personal or real properties forfeited as a result of criminal or civil actions for cannabis/marijuana-related acts which are hereby no longer illegal."
Stroup said the provision goes too far. He also predicted the federal government would not let the initiative stand even without the reparations request, because it remains illegal to sell and distribute marijuana under federal law. "They would ask for an injunction and I think they would get it. The response to this would be far stronger than it was with medical marijuana."
When asked about the reparations provision, Anders said a committee would decide on the particulars of the restitution and conceded, "It probably wasn't a good idea to put that in the initiative. It may make it harder to pass."