JUNEAU, Alaska – Alaska, known for its live-and-let-live lifestyle, is poised to become the next battleground in the push to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
The state has a complicated history with the drug, with its highest court ruling nearly 40 years ago that adults have a constitutional right to possess and smoke marijuana for personal use in their own homes. In the late 1990s, Alaska became one of the first states to allow the use of pot for medicinal reasons.
Then the pendulum swung the other direction, with residents in 2004 rejecting a ballot effort to legalize recreational marijuana. And in 2006, the state passed a law criminalizing possession of even small amounts of the drug – leaving the current state of affairs somewhat murky.
Supporters of recreational marijuana say attitudes toward pot have softened in the past decade, and they believe they have a real shot at success in Alaska.
The state is reviewing their request to begin gathering signatures to get an initiative on next year’s ballot. The proposal would make it legal for those 21 and older to use and possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, though not in public. It also would set out provisions for legal grow operations and establish an excise tax.
It’s a significantly different version of the failed 2004 ballot effort that would’ve allowed adults 21 and older to use, grow, sell or give away marijuana or hemp products without penalty under state law.
“The whole initiative, you can tell, is scaled down to be as palatable as possible,” said one of the sponsors, Bill Parker.
If the initiative application is accepted, backers will have until January, before the next legislative session starts, to gather the more than 30,000 signatures required to qualify the measure for the primary ballot.
The effort could determine whether the pendulum swings back.
The Alaska Supreme Court, in its landmark 1975 decision, found possession of marijuana by adults at home for personal use is constitutionally protected as part of their basic right to privacy, though the court made clear it didn’t condone the use of pot.
The laws tightened again with a 2006 state law criminalizing marijuana possession. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, saying the law conflicted with the 1975 ruling. The state maintained marijuana had become more intoxicating than in the 1970s, a point disputed by ACLU.
But the high court, in 2009, declined to make a finding, concluding any challenge to the law must await an actual prosecution.
Parker said the lack of clarity regarding marijuana possession is a problem, but he noted police aren’t exactly peeking into people’s homes to see if they have the drug.
Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny said in an email that home-use marijuana cases in Alaska are few because authorities have no reason to get a search warrant unless something else is going on inside a house that attracts their attention.
The proposed initiative includes language that says it’s not intended to diminish the right to privacy interpreted in the 1975 case. But it notes that case is not a “blanket protection for marijuana possession,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
“In order to have a system where individuals can go to a store, buy an ounce of marijuana, drive home, and enjoy it at home, it is necessary to make up to an ounce of marijuana entirely legal,” Tvert said.
Alaska is one of many states mulling changes to marijuana laws. Last fall, voters in Colorado and Washington state passed initiatives legalizing, taxing and regulating recreational marijuana.
This year, bills were filed in more than half the states to enact a medical marijuana law, decriminalize or reduce penalties for simple possession, or to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. However, many of those proposals died, stalled or will be carried over.
Tvert said his group is working to promote initiatives allowing recreational marijuana in a handful of other states, including California, Oregon, Maine and Nevada. He thinks those states will be ready to pass such a measure in 2016.
“Ultimately we are starting to see the marijuana policy debate shift away from whether marijuana should be allowed or prohibited and toward how we will treat it,” Tvert said.
The U.S. Justice Department has not said how it will respond to the laws in Washington and Colorado. A bipartisan group of congressmen, including Alaska’s lone U.S. House member, Don Young, recently introduced legislation that would ensure the federal government respects stat e marijuana laws. For the Republican Young, it’s a states’ rights issue, his spokesman said by email.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who consistently has fought the feds when he believes they’ve overstepped their bounds, supports a state’s right to establish its own laws and appreciates Young’s effort, Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said. But he also considers marijuana a “gateway drug that can lead to more serious patterns of substance abuse and criminal offenses,” she said by email. He has not stated his position on the proposed initiative.