Alaska is already in the vanguard of marijuana law reform, and a marijuana initiative on the November ballot could see the state pushing the envelope even further. Right now, Alaska is the only state in the union to have even partially legalized the possession of marijuana -- the state's highest courts have recently reaffirmed that possession of up to four ounces in one's home is protected by the privacy provisions of the state constitution. The November initiative, officially known as Ballot Measure 2, would remove all criminal penalties for marijuana possession, production, or sales and require the state legislature to craft regulations to govern the legal sale of the weed.
A homegrown effort to legalize marijuana in Alaska failed in 2000, garnering only 41% of the vote, but this time around, initiative organizers have removed language that cost votes in 2000 and have engineered a campaign that is slick, professional, and well-financed. This year's effort brings together both local activists and a national organization, the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). Grassroots activists have formed Alaskans for Rights and Responsibilities (ARR) as a successor organization to Hemp in Alaska, the group that ran the 2000 initiative, while MPP has formed Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control (http://www.regulatemarijuanainalaska.org). The two groups have joined together to support yet a third entity, Yes on 2, which is using a university professor, a former corrections official, and a prominent former Republican to campaign for the initiative.
Gov. Frank Murkowski, Attorney General Greg Renkes, and assorted drug warriors are grumbling aloud about the measure. "The governor cannot use state resources to campaign for or against a measure, but that does not stop him from expressing his opinion," said Murkowski spokesperson Becky Hultberg. "He strongly opposes this measure. He has been very active on substance abuse issues, and he views marijuana as a gateway to other drug abuse," she told DRCNet. But despite Murkowski's concern, there is at this point no organized opposition to the measure.
"In 2000, there was a lot of infighting and disorganization," said David Finkelstein, treasurer for AMRC. "We tried to resolve that early on and I think we did pretty well. The campaign had its grand opening on the 16th, and a couple of hundred people came. Even though there are two groups, there is one office, one campaign, one message," he told DRCNet. "Privacy is the main theme we will be hitting," he explained. "That was the basis of the court decisions, and privacy is an important concern for Alaskans," he said. "But we will also talk about the need to regulate marijuana."
"Yes on 2 is the public face of the campaign," said Finkelstein. That public face is one designed to appeal to Alaska voters, he said. "Our lead spokesman is Bill Parks, a former legislator and deputy commissioner of corrections, and Ken Jacobus, the treasurer for Yes on 2, is the former attorney for the state Republican Party. We also have Dr. Tim Hinterberger from the university acting as a spokesman."
"We're very pleased and grateful that the different elements have come together like this," said Hinterberger, an associate professor for the biomedical program at the University of Alaska, "and David Finkelstein is largely to thank for that. Too often there is squabbling between local activists and outsiders, but here in Alaska we have bridged those differences and are all on the same page now."
The campaign is spending big money on television and radio commercials, said Finkelstein. "We started running TV ads this month, and we will do TV and radio through the election," he said. "We will run as many as we can, and we will also try to get more newsprint, radio, and mail advertising, but that is dependent on how much money we raise," he said.
While no polling has been done, activists are cautiously optimistic that the measure can pass. "Alaskans are independent and have a strong sense of personal responsibility and personal freedom," said Hinterberger. "If we can't get this passed in Alaska, we aren't trying hard enough."
AMRC's Finkelstein was a bit more guarded. "I'd say we're behind but it's reachable," he said. "We've done a lot of voter contact, we've revised the language of the initiative, and we're running a strong campaign. This will be a tough one to win, but I think we're close."
That view is shared by at least one neutral observer, University of Alaska associate professor of political science Carl Shepro. "Many here have partaken, and there is also a strong sense of privacy," he told DRCNet. "The governor opposes this, but he is very unpopular right now, so I don't know if that will help defeat the measure. It could very well pass."
While Alaska may lead the nation in liberalizing the pot laws, it hasn't gone far enough, said Hinterberger. "The situation is tenuous here because some members of the legislature and Attorney General Renkes are talking about trying to change the law," he explained. "Also, the law says you can have four ounces, but you can't purchase it. In that sense, the law is really incomplete. Unless the right to possess marijuana is a workable right, it's just a fake right."
And while a victory at the polls in November would be huge, that would not be the end of the affair, said Hinterberger. "A victory in November would be truly revolutionary," he said, "but we will still have to get the legislature to play ball." Under the language of the initiative, it is up to the legislature to create a system of regulated sale and manufacture of the weed. "I suspect the legislature may rather see it all blow up than regulate it properly. Even with a victory in November, our work is just beginning."