Alaska remains the only state in the union where adults may legally possess marijuana, after the state legislature ended its session without acting on a bill sponsored by Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) to recriminalize it. With Murkowski's political future uncertain and the legislature having demonstrated its lack of a sense of urgency on the issue, prospects for the bill's revival next year are hazy.
While Murkowski had threatened to add the bill to a special session later this year if it didn't come to a vote during the regular session, that will not happen, Oeschlin said. "The bill is not on the special session calendar," she told DRCNet.
When the Alaska Supreme Court last year upheld a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court ruling that legalized the possession of up to four ounces of marijuana in the privacy of one's home, Murkowski and the state's law enforcement establishment vowed to override the courts and recriminalize it. In January, Murkowski acted on that promise, sending the legislature a bill that would not only recriminalize marijuana possession, but also create felonies out of pot offenses that are currently misdemeanors.
For Murkowski, passage of the bill would have been only a first step to reversing the marijuana law because the new law would conflict with state law as interpreted by the courts and would thus face a quick challenge. The bill was carefully crafted, however, to lay the groundwork for a state high court review of the original 1975 decision, which found that marijuana was not harmful enough to merit the invasion of citizens' privacy to arrest them for using it at home. In that decision, the court noted that its finding could be revisited if new information on marijuana's harmfulness was presented. The bill's text asserted that "the legislature finds that marijuana poses a threat to the public health that justifies prohibiting its use and possession in this state, even by adults in private." Passage of a bill incorporating that language could help the state in the inevitable challenge to follow.
While Murkowski and his allies in law enforcement hoped to steamroll the bill through the legislature, the legislature proved remarkably resistant. After being stalled in committee for a month, it looked as if the bill might move to the Senate floor. Last week, as the clock ticked down toward Tuesday's adjournment, Murkowski called the bill a "must have," adding, "I want marijuana this session."
But legislators had other priorities – the budget, public employee retirement funding, workers compensation funding – and they showed little enthusiasm for taking up the marijuana bill. Helping to dampen any enthusiasm was a strong showing by both drug reformers and the citizens of Alaska.
Former deputy corrections commissioner Bill Parker led the blocking effort for Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control, the in-state group that works in conjunction with MPP to advance the cause of marijuana law reform in Alaska. The Juneau lobbyist had a bad feeling when Murkowski first announced the attempted rollback, he told DRCNet. "When I came down here, I thought we were going to get rolled," he said.
That is certainly what Murkowski and the bill's backers had in mind. It didn't work out that way, thanks to a good defensive effort by reformers, Parker said. In hearings earlier this session, reformers and expert witnesses effectively refuted the litany of charges Murkowski and his allies were making against marijuana. "MPP and the ACLU of Alaska produced a lot of expert witnesses and a stack of testimony four feet high," he said. "We also had radio ads asking people to send in cards and letters to their representatives, and that had a huge response," Parker said.
It wasn't just organized opposition. The issue generated dozens of letters to the editor from concerned citizens. "There was all sorts of organic stuff happening," Parker said. "We had witnesses show up who we had never even heard of." That should come as no surprise in a state where 44% of the electorate voted to legalize marijuana in November. The state's three largest newspapers also editorialized against the bill.
When asked what happened to Murkowski's push, Parker laughed. "The governor has maranoia, but the legislature doesn't suffer from that," he said. "It didn't really have a champion in the legislature, no one really pushed for it -- a lot of legislators told us they didn't even want to vote on it. Both caucuses in both houses were reluctant to touch this," he said.
Rep. Kevin Meyer, co-chair of the house finance committee agreed. "It just was not a real top priority of anybody but the governor," he told the Anchorage Daily Times.
When given a chance to vote to recriminalize marijuana, Alaska lawmakers turned it down. But that does not mean reformers should be complacent, Parker warned. "There is another side to this. Yes, the legislature was reluctant to take this up. But if they had had to take recorded votes on this, I think they would have voted for the new prohibition."