Senate gives thumbs-up to marijuana bill

Law would make any pot in home illegal

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2006

The Alaska Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would give Gov. Frank Murkowski ammunition as he tries to overturn a 31-year-old court precedent allowing marijuana in the home for personal use.

The Senate Finance Committee inserted the provisions of Murkowski's marijuana bill, which the governor has called must-pass legislation, into another piece of legislation meant to curb home laboratory production of methamphetamine.

The measure, which still must pass the House of Representatives, would make possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 4 ounces would be a felony.

Current law makes it a misdemeanor to possess up to a half-pound of marijuana.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that Alaskans could possess a small amount of marijuana in their homes as a right to privacy issue. A later decision defined that amount as up to 4 ounces.

Since 2003, when the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed a 1990 voter referendum re-criminalizing possession of marijuana, Murkowski's Department of Law has been trying to lay the groundwork to overturn the courts' decisions.

The bill passed by the Senate on Thursday includes a list of findings that conclude marijuana today is more potent and more a threat to public safety than it was 30 years ago.

Those findings are what will be needed for the matter to stand up in court if the new law is passed, Department of Law officials say.

The department expects a legal challenge to come quickly if the bill becomes law.

"The court always has the final word on whether a statute is constitutional," said Chief Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli. "I think it's incumbent on the Legislature to give the court the best guidance that it can to enact a piece of legislation."

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said he seriously doubted the validity of the bill's findings, calling it "bad science." For example, even if there are higher levels of THC in marijuana today, there is no proof those increased levels results in a higher threat to one's health, he said.

Guaneli said the findings are sound and he believes the courts will uphold the bill.

The bill also would restrict the sale of a popular decongestant, Sudafed, which is used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. It would also list certain anabolic steroids as controlled substances.

Before the bill passed the Senate, Sens. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, added one last provision. Their amendment gives the state Public Safety commissioner the right to add other products or substances to the restricted list if the commissioner finds they are being used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Wagoner and Green also attempted to insert a provision preventing the courts from issuing injunctions or restraining orders against the Public Safety commissioner, but failed to receive the required two-thirds votes.

The bill now heads to the House. The governor's marijuana bill was not heard in any House committee, meaning representatives there will have to vote on the Senate's changes without having gone through a full vetting of the bill.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said the measure wouldn't be brought to the House floor before Wednesday. He said Republican majority members haven't yet discussed how they would deal with the bill.

If the House rejects the Senate's changes, and the Senate does not back down, a conference committee would be appointed to work out a compromise bill.

The bill is House Bill 149.

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