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DOJ outlines pot enforcement priorities

State legalization would come with restrictions

Posted: August 31, 2013 - 6:00pm  |  Updated: September 1, 2013 - 12:05am

If Alaska legalizes marijuana, the Department of Justice now has a few rules the state will need to follow and enforce. In a Thursday memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole outlined eight enforcement priorities that aim to keep pot from being grown on federal property, sold on the black market or used by kids.

The announcement — which came as a result of Colorado and Washington passing ballot initiatives legalizing pot — is not surprising to Tim Hinterberger. Hinterberger is a professor of developmental biology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is sponsoring, along with Bill Parker and Mary Reff, an initiative that would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana sales.

“It simply reinforces what we’ve been saying for some time,” Hinterberger said. “The mood in the country has been shifting.”

The mood in Alaska, however, has been quite relaxed for nearly 40 years. The Ravin v. State ruling of 1975 determined that Alaskans who used and possessed marijuana in the privacy of their own home were protected by the state constitution. Still, Alaska’s courts have recognized that possession is illegal under federal law.

A study in 2009 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that Alaska had some of the highest usage rates in the nation. The report said that about 33 percent of people aged 18-25 had used pot in the previous year; that dropped to about 10 percent for those 26-years-old and older. About 15 percent of kids aged 12-17 had also used pot in the last year, the report said. The percentages drop significantly when looking at how many people had used pot in the last month.

There’s no knowing if legalization would increase pot use among kids, Hinterberger said, but that legalization would practically eliminate the black market.

“Certainly it will change the whole landscape if you can go down to the local smoke store, show your ID and take some (marijuana) home,” Hinterberger said. “Drug dealers don’t ask anyone, even kids, for identification.”

In 2004, legalization supporters got an initiative on the ballot that not only legalized marijuana but gave amnesty to those serving time in jail for use or possession. That initiative garnered 44 percent approval from voters; not enough to pass, but enough to tell organizers that there was support for legalization.

Hinterberger said the current initiative to legalize pot in Alaska has at least 17,000 signatures so far and is on track to have 45,000 by Dec. 31. If the initiative gets on the ballot and voters approve it, the state would be responsible for creating and strictly enforcing laws and regulations that are in line with the DOJ’s enforcement priorities.

Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com.

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