Alaska Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and his allies in law enforcement and the legislature are pulling out all the stops to pass a bill that would recriminalize marijuana possession in the state -- and so far, it's working. The Alaska Senate Thursday overwhelmingly approved the measure after being in session for only 10 days, and it is now headed for a House floor vote, bypassing the committees where it was killed last year.
Although notice of the Senate vote had not appeared on the Alaska legislature web site by late Thursday afternoon, staffers for Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage) confirmed to DRCNet that the measure had indeed passed.
"They don't want to have to vote on this, but if it comes to a roll call vote, they'll vote for it," predicted Bill Parker, a former state deputy corrections commissioner who is lobbying against the bill for the Marijuana Policy Project and its local affiliate told DRCNet Thursday morning as he awaited senate action on the measure. By later that afternoon, Parker had been proven correct, with the bill passing on a 17-1 vote.
That would be only the first step in actually overturning existing law, though. The bill, if passed, would be unconstitutional under the state constitution on its face, given the Supreme Court's 1975 and 2004 decisions. In those cases, the court held that any deleterious health effects of marijuana were so slight they did not justify the invasion of privacy the law created. But the court also held that if it were presented with a substantially different finding of fact about the harms of marijuana, it might reweigh the issue and conclude the herb is so harmful that outlawing its personal use at home would be constitutionally justified. That means if the bill becomes law, it will be quickly challenged and held in abeyance while the case is appealed back up to the Supreme Court.
Last year, Murkowski and his allies were first bushwhacked and then stymied in the legislature. When they attempted to include in the bill a lengthy and unscientific finding stating that marijuana was much more dangerous than when the Alaska Supreme Court decided its case 30 years ago, reformers were able to mobilize a cadre of experts to put the lie to such claims. While last year's bill was able to get through the Senate, organized opposition brought it to a dead stop in the House.
This year, Murkowski and his allies are using every procedural trick in the book to get the bill approved before opposition can gel. Last week, Murkowski henchwoman Sen. Lyda Green (R-Wasilla) hurried the bill through the Senate Finance Committee, then combined it with an anti-methamphetamine measure that already passed the House last year. The move was a double-whammy, tying the controversial marijuana bill to the more popular meth bill and, because the meth bill had already passed the House, allowing the bill to move toward a full House vote without having to go through the committees where it died last year.
"There are evil deeds going on as we speak," MPP communications director Bruce Mirken told DRCNet as the Senate was preparing to vote. "We have folks stalking the halls of the capitol trying to keep an eye on things, and we will be complaining loudly to the press as this shotgun process unfolds," he said. "It would really short circuit the legislative process if something this extreme gets through. They are trying to minimize debate and discussion and controversy because they know if this thing had a proper light shined on it, people would not like it."
Indeed, Alaskans have shown strong support for marijuana law reform, even as far as outright legalization. While legalization has yet to win at the polls, an overambitious 2000 initiative that would have legalized pot and granted amnesty won 41% of the vote, and in 2004, another, more carefully crafted legalization initiative crept up to 44% voter approval.
"This train may be moving so fast we won't be able to stop it," said Mirken. "If push comes to shove, we will do everything we can to assist the inevitable legal challenge to it. They are trying to write into law that today's marijuana is more dangerous than 30 years ago, and we are ready to refute all that."
That may be part of the reason the bill is moving so quickly. "We were all ready to line up an impressive array of written testimony, scientific articles, and expert witnesses to refute the state's claims like we did last year," said MPP's Mirken. "The question is whether they have any interest in actually listening to the evidence."
To find an answer to Mirken's question, all one has to do is look at the lengths to which Murkowski and his supporters have gone to avoid open debate this year. Still, the battle is not over yet, and even if the bill emerges into law, the battle over legal marijuana in Alaska will just have been rejoined.