In a surprise vote last Friday, the Alaska House approved a bill that would recriminalize marijuana possession in the state. That vote came only three weeks after the House had rejected the same bill in conference committee, but legislators voted 21-17 to rescind their earlier vote. Once signed into law by Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), the measure is certain to provoke a constitutional challenge.
Under a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court ruling, the state constitution's privacy provision protects the ability of adults to possess up to a quarter-pound of marijuana in their homes. Alaskans voted to recriminalize marijuana possession in 1991, and that remained the law until 2004, when the state Supreme Court reaffirmed its 1975 decision, throwing out the possession law. Murkowski and his allies in law enforcement have been fighting to re-recriminalize marijuana ever since.
The bill, House Bill 149, was pushed hard by Murkowski. His allies attached it to an anti-methamphetamine bill in an effort to speed its approval, but that move nearly backfired as House members revolted against the governor's heavy-handed manipulations, objecting that tying the two bills together meant they had no opportunity for hearings on the marijuana bill.
The bill contains a lengthy list of "findings" that marijuana is a more potent and dangerous drug than it was in 1975. Those findings are aimed directly at the Supreme Court, which in its original decision held that the harms of marijuana did not warrant the intrusion on privacy created by criminalizing possession, but also noted that its decision could be revisited and possibly changed if marijuana's harmfulness was shown to outweigh privacy concerns.
House Democrats said the only reason the bill passed on a second try was pressure from the governor. "To me, this shows how distorted this process has become," House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz (D-Anchorage) told the Associated Press." If I wake up in the morning and there's snow on the ground, I don't have to see the snow falling to know that it has snowed. It's what you call circumstantial evidence."
While Murkowski's office pronounced the governor well pleased, he is about to find that he has only entered a new phase of battle. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has served notice it will not even wait for a criminal possession case to be filed to challenge the law. In a letter sent last Friday to Alaska Attorney General David Marquez, state ACLU director Michael Macleod-Ball warned the group would sue for injunctive relief if the governor signs the bill. "Plain and simple, you are attempting to further restrict the right to privacy enjoyed by all Alaskans by enacting the marijuana provisions of the bill," the letter warned.
Gov. Murkowski and his forces of darkness have won a battle, but the war is far from over. For the time being, pot is still legal in Alaska, and if the ACLU has its way, the new law will never be implemented.