With Alaska courts having ruled possession of up to four ounces of marijuana is legal in one's home, the state already has the most progressive pot laws in the country. But voters there Tuesday turned down an opportunity to advance even further, rejecting an initiative that would have removed all criminal penalties for marijuana use, possession, and distribution. While the initiative never led in pre-election polls and faced opposition from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Alaska drug warriors, it was a horrific crime right out of a Harry Anslinger "Reefer Madness" nightmare that may have sealed its defeat.
According to the Alaska Secretary of State's office, with 98.4% of the vote counted, Ballot Measure Two trailed by a margin of 43% to 57%. While not enough for victory, the percentage exceeded the 41% gained by a similar, slightly more ambitious, initiative in 2000 and represents the highest percentage ever recorded in favor of replacing prohibition with the regulated use, production, and sale of marijuana in the United States.
Based on that 2000 defeat, organizers this year knew they had an uphill battle, and with $850,000 in the campaign war chest, they had a battle plan, with TV and radio advertising as well as get-out-the-vote efforts and a trio of very presentable spokesmen. They had also managed to bring together long-time local activists organized in Alaskans for Rights and Responsibilities (http://www.ar2ak.org) and a Marijuana Policy Project-sponsored group, Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control (http://www.regulatemarijuanainalaska.org), creating a third entity, Yes on 2 (http://www.yeson2.org), to run the campaign.
But even as initiative proponents worked toward victory, by October organized opposition was beginning to appear. Deputy drug czar Scott Burns visited the state to badmouth the measure on October 14. On that occasion he was joined by a number of state law enforcement and political figures. The Alaska Peace Officers Association and the Alaska Medical Association, which supported medical marijuana when it passed in 1998, joined the opposition, running their own radio and newspaper ads urging a no vote.
Whatever chance the initiative had, however, was lost with the arrest of a 16-year-old Anchorage youth last month on charges of raping and killing (or killing and raping) his stepmother. According to sensationalized and widely-repeated press accounts, the youth confessed to fighting with his stepmother over his marijuana use and "maybe" hitting her with a baseball bat, but being "too stoned" to remember for sure. He denied sexually assaulting her, either before or after her death, but was charged with murder and sexual assault in Anchorage on Monday.
"We were about 20 points behind in the summer, but then our campaign got going with advertising and going door-to-door," said David Finkelstein, treasurer for Yes on 2 (http://www.yeson2.org). "We were down eight or nine points in mid-October, so we thought we had the momentum swinging our way, but then we had that horrible event with the kid killing his stepmother. They indicted him Monday and it was all over the Tuesday morning newspapers. That extremely unfortunate coincidence really knocked the campaign for a loop and stopped the momentum," he told DRCNet Wednesday.
For MPP communications director Bruce Mirken, the fact that the initiative did so well even in the face of the teenage marijuana maniac story was a victory of sorts. "Despite that story and the fact that it unquestionably damaged us, playing into all the fears that opponents were trying to generate, the measure still got the highest percentage ever on a statewide vote to end marijuana prohibition," he told DRCNet. "I think this result has to be seen as an indication that this is doable. Regulating marijuana is no longer a wild, outlandish idea and discussion about whether marijuana prohibition makes sense is now in the mainstream."
While Mirken was looking at symbolic victories, opponents of the measure, such as former US Attorney Wev Shea, were touting its defeat. "It just shows that Alaskans are independent... and the state of Alaska should not be an experiment for outside interests," he told the Associated Press Wednesday.
Matthew Fagnani, who chaired the sole opposition group to the measure and who is also president of the drug-testing firm WorkSafe, Inc., told the AP he was "very happy" with the results. "Today is a good day for the sake of the future of Alaska's children," he said.
And current US Attorney Tim Burgess also signaled relief at the outcome. "Substance abuse and drug addiction are a tremendous problem in Alaska," he said. "It is something that the law enforcement community realizes because they have to deal with it every day."
But while the prohibitionist victors were basking in the warm afterglow, they shouldn't relax too much, said Finkelstein. "I don't think this is the end of it," he said. "We will have to see what comes next." Marijuana has been an issue in Alaska since the 1970s, he said, and it isn't going away. A significant minority of Alaskans have signaled they are ready for change, he said. "They are ready for it, but we may have to take a smaller step to get there," he predicted.
And next time, the movement will be even stronger. "The great thing that came out of this," Finkelstein said, "is that we demonstrated the ability to work together. Previously there were separate campaigns. Now, we have a unified approach to marijuana initiatives in Alaska."