Alaska editorial: Legislation on meth, marijuana is easy call

Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2006

This editorial first appeared in the (Kenai) Peninsula Clarion:

If ever there was a piece of legislation that everyone could get behind, House Bill 149 is it - well, almost.

The Senate has passed the bill that gives law enforcement agencies more tools to use in their fight to curb the state's methamphetamine problem. For instance the bill allows the restriction of sales of key meth ingredients - like the cold medicine Sudafed. It also gives the state Public Safety commissioner the ability to name additional products to the restricted list if it's discovered they are being use to make meth.

Who could argue with that? Other than some amendment wrangling over implementation issues, no one in the Senate voiced their opposition to the main crux of the bill - combating meth.

The scourge of methamphetamine use is hitting Alaska just as it has the West Coast, where the trend skyrocketed. Relatively cheap and easy to make, meth gives a 10-hour high and is highly addictive. Not only are the physical consequences to the user severe, meth endangers everyone in the vicinity of where it's made. Meth labs involve toxic chemicals that are highly flammable and the "cooking" process runs a risk of powerful explosions and chemical-fueled fires.

In Kenai, police bust six to eight meth labs a year. Troopers on the peninsula bust about that many, as well.

HB 149 was shaping up to be a bill that would do unequivocal good for the state that the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans could get behind.

That is until the governor added an ingredient that is a sure recipe for contention in this state - marijuana. With court rulings, voter referendums and debate over medicinal use having stretched on for decades, pot is a topic that never fails to stir up debate.

In this case, the Murkowski administration is using the meth bill as a vehicle to challenge the state Supreme Court's rulings allowing small amounts of pot in homes as a right to privacy issue.

The Senate Finance Committee added Murkowski-backed provisions to HB 149 that would make it a misdemeanor to have less than 4 ounces of pot at home and a felony to have more than 4 ounces. As the law stands now, it's legal to have up to 4 ounces at home and a misdemeanor to have up to a half-pound of marijuana.

The bill passed the Senate and now goes to the House. If it passes with the amendments attached, the Supreme Court is sure to address the matter quickly, as it contradicts current law.

Murkowski is taking a gamble with this legislation, but it's a good gamble to make. Even if he loses and the Supreme Court strikes down the legislation, as it did a voter referendum recriminalizing pot in 2003, the issue will have been addressed again. When a topic engenders as much debate as marijuana does in Alaska, it's good to revisit it to make sure the law is as reflective of the public will and good as possible.

If the bill makes it past the Legislature, it has a better chance of holding up in the Supreme Court than previous pot-banning attempts have.

The bill contains findings that argue marijuana is more potent and a larger threat to public safety now than when the Supreme Court made its first ruling allowing it in homes in 1975.

Opponents say such findings are bad science. But really it's bad judgment to assume pot isn't more potent. Basic laws of consumerism dictate that a better product sells better and can be sold for more money. In the case of drugs, "better" from the sellers' standpoint means more potent and more addictive. If marijuana growers and sellers create stronger pot, they can sell it for more and have more repeat customers.

This doesn't just happen with marijuana. It's a common evolution of other drugs. Take beer, for instance. Varieties of ice beer available today have a higher alcohol content than beer did years ago. The same holds true for creating crack from cocaine and crystal from meth.

This legislation also would make state law more consistent and stop the mixed message that it now delivers - that pot is illegal and harmful, except when used at home.

Either it's harmful enough to ban outright, or it's not. The state's tact on meth has been clear - no use is OK, not even in the privacy of a home. The governor is attempting to have the same precedent set for pot.

Time, legislative finagling and ultimately the state Supreme Court will dictate whether his goal is achieved or goes up in smoke.

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