Fairbanks judge throws out marijuana conviction

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2003

FAIRBANKS - A Superior Court judge dismissed a man's marijuana conviction, ruling that the Alaska Constitution guarantees the right to possess marijuana for personal use in the home.

Judge Richard Savell of Fairbanks dismissed Scott A. Thomas' conviction. Thomas was charged with three counts of felony fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance for allegedly growing pot plants in his home last summer.

A jury found Thomas guilty of one count of a misdemeanor charge of sixth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance for possessing 2.6 ounces of marijuana.

Lawyer Bill Satterberg filed to have the guilty verdict dismissed. He argued that Thomas' conviction was not constitutional as determined by the 1975 state Supreme Court decision made in Ravin v. State.

That decision made it legal for adults to possess marijuana in their homes for personal consumption as long as the amount of the drug didn't exceed enough to constitute "an intent to deliver."

Four ounces of marijuana or more was considered the threshold. State law has since placed the amount at eight ounces.

The justices ruled in the Supreme Court case that possession of pot by an adult in their home was allowed as a fundamental constitutional right to privacy. However, a 1990 voter initiative changed state law to make possession of any amount of marijuana in any location illegal.

In the recent case, the defense argued that the portion of the law prohibiting possession of marijuana for personal consumption by an adult in their home is unconstitutional.

"A direct conflict in the law exists between the right to privacy guaranteed under the Alaska Constitution and the statutory prohibition ... which criminalizes the personal use of marijuana by an adult in the privacy of the home, regardless of the quantity of the prohibited substance," reads a portion of Thomas' motion to dismiss his conviction.

Savell granted the motion June 25.

Jim McLain, a legal clerk in Satterberg's law office who drafted the motion for dismissal, called the decision significant.

"My understanding of it is that if Ravin is still the law, then marijuana is still legal," said McLain, a former attorney.

He said Savell's decision does not necessarily set precedent, "although in reality it may be indicative of what other judges in Fairbanks do."

McLain added that he expects a more broad-scale debate to develop soon about whether Alaska's marijuana possession law is constitutional. McLain said he believes that the 1990 voter initiative that criminalized all pot use in the state is not binding, considering voters do not have the power to change the constitution through the initiative process.

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