A representative from the Alaska Civil Liberties Union joined a handful of experts Friday to tell a Senate committee that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and even tobacco.
"There has not been a single case of lung cancer or emphysema triggered by smoking marijuana found in medical literature," said Dr. Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School who has studied the effects of pot for almost 40 years.
In his assessment, he said the public has been "brainwashed" on the effects of marijuana. Senators reviewing a criminalization bill were hesitant to agree.
The bill would make possession of an ounce of marijuana a misdemeanor. Possession of 4 ounces would be a felony. Currently Alaska courts grant privacy protection to those possessing up to 4 ounces.
Last week a White House drug adviser and others told the committee that marijuana is dangerous and should be criminalized.
The Senate Health, Environment and Social Services Committee approved the bill Friday, but committee chairman Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said his vote did not mean he supports the proposal.
"Three of the committee members felt comfortable that it should continue in the process. And I know Sen. (Donald) Olson and I both plan on doing some research," Dyson said.
The bill moves to the Judiciary Committee next and then to the Finance Committee before going to the floor for a vote. The House of Representatives must also review the bill.
Gov. Frank Murkowski is pushing this law to criminalize marijuana and get findings on the record in order to open and overturn a 2003 Court of Appeals case that ruled Alaskans have the right to possess small quantities of marijuana in their homes.
Among the 19 findings in the bill are statements saying that marijuana is more addictive than heroin, it has a dramatically higher potency than before, and it leads smokers to commit violent crimes.
On Friday the AkCLU led a team of opponents who said the bill is based on a framework of evidence that is skewed to one view.
"The court will stand for a paper record of several hundred pages if the result is contrary to the evidence submitted," said Michael MacLeod-Ball, director of AkCLU.
The most debated finding throughout the afternoon was whether an increase in marijuana's potency has led to more addictions and associated problems.
"The marijuana of Cheech and Chong had a THC level of 1.5 percent," said John Bobo, adviser to the office of drug and alcohol policy U.S. Department of Transportation. He claims THC levels of homegrown pot today can be as high as 22 percent to 24 percent.
Mitch Earlewine, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, said that those high percentages are rare and the national average today is closer to 6 percent.
"When we give people cannabis that has 1 percent in the laboratory, they get a headache and claim it is placebo and they find it inactive and don't want to use it again," said Earlewine. "Obviously this wasn't the case in the 1970s or people wouldn't want to try it again."
Muscular sclerosis sufferer Jim Welch of Eagle River said the potency was a hidden "healthy" benefit: "That means I'm putting less smoke in my lungs."
Kelly Drew, a University of Alaska Fairbanks chemistry professor, phoned in to say that it is unlikely for marijuana to be addictive since it stays in the body's fat cells for about 30 days. Therefore, the body doesn't suffer withdrawal symptoms, she said.
Bobo also said that people under the influence of pot are more likely to commit accidents on the highways. The senators wondered why they haven't heard about marijuana being linked to such highway collisions.
"The media does not want to acknowledge there is a problem," said Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli, the bill's sponsor.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.