Marijuana: Alaska Governor's Bid to Recriminalize Marijuana Backfires as House Rejects Combined "Methijuana" Bill 2/3/06

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Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski and his allies in the state legislature hoped that tying their pet bill to recriminalize marijuana possession to a popular bill dealing with methamphetamines would help them steamroll the legislation into law, but it didn't work out that way this week. On Wednesday, the Alaska House rejected the bill, with several lawmakers saying their "no" votes were a protest against Murkowski's heavy-handed effort to mix-and-match the two separate drug bills into what they called the "methijuana bill."

That doesn't, however, mean Murkowski's effort is dead. Because the House passed a version of the Senate bill last year, the issue will be taken up in conference committee later this session.

The "methijuana bill" was defeated in the House on a vote of 23-15, with several Republicans breaking ranks to vote against their governor. Ironically, the combined bill also lost Republican support because it removed a meth provision requiring that stores keep log books to record purchases of over-the-counter drugs containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in mom-and-pop meth manufacture. The Senate version of the bill now only requires that sales of such items be restricted.

Democrats cited a number of reasons to oppose the combined "methijuana bill." "I thought we did some excellent work, bipartisan work, and it's come back as a Christmas tree," Rep. Harry Crawford (D-Anchorage) said on the House floor before casting his vote against the revised bill. "I believe the trunk of the Christmas tree is rotten now, and I'm not buying it," Crawford said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau) said she was voting against the bill because the governor's maneuver meant the House would have to vote to recriminalize marijuana without holding any hearings on the subject. "It's not because I want to see marijuana or meth being used," Kerttula said, adding that she thought recriminalizing marijuana would not pass constitutional muster.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that the state constitution's privacy provisions protected marijuana use in the privacy of one's home, a decision that was restated in court decisions in 2004 and 2005. Under current Alaska law, people can possess up to a quarter pound of marijuana in their homes with no criminal penalty. Gov. Murkowski wants to pass the marijuana bill in order to force the Alaska Supreme Court to once again revisit its decision. Murkowski and his allies hope they can persuade the court that marijuana is so much more dangerous than in 1975 that the court will reverse itself.

The conference committee that will decide the bill's fate will meet later this month and will likely be composed of two Republicans and one Democrat from each chamber. House Majority Leader John Coghill (R-North Pole) told reporters this week he doubted the committee will make any changes to the "methijuana bill." Some Democrats had suggested it be broken up and its components considered separately.

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Issue #421 -- 2/3/06

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