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A Juneau judge on Monday struck down part of a new Alaska law criminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying it conflicts with past constitutional decisions made by the Alaska Supreme Court.
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That means the police won't be able to charge people with a misdemeanor under the new law for possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana in their homes.
The state Department of Law was expected to quickly file an appeal with the high court.
Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins said a lower court can't reverse the state Supreme Court's 1975 decision in Ravin v. State. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled the right to privacy in one's home included the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
"Unless and until the Supreme Court directs otherwise, Ravin is the law in this state and this court is duty bound to follow that law," Collins wrote in her decision.
Collins granted a summary judgment to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which sued the state when the law took effect in June.
Collins limited her decision to possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, even though the new law increases penalties for possession of more than that amount. Before the law took effect in June, it had been legal in Alaska to possess up to 4 ounces of the drug.
Collins said she limited her decision because the ACLU argued that the only issue in this case is the Legislature's power to regulate possession of small amounts of marijuana.
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"No specific argument has been advanced in this case that possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana, even within the privacy of the home, is constitutionally protected conduct under Ravin or that any plaintiff or ACLU of Alaska member actually possesses more than 1 ounce of marijuana in their homes," Collins wrote.
The new law makes possession of 4 ounces or more a felony. Possession of 1 to 4 ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. The part the court ruled against was that less than 1 ounce would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.
"Our initial interpretation of this case at this point is that Judge Collins' decision makes it clear that the state has the ability to regulate marijuana uses in amounts greater that 1 ounce," Department of Law spokesman Mark Morones said.
The state Department of Law argued that new findings of marijuana's increased potency since the 1975 decision justify reconsidering the issue.
ACLU of Alaska executive director Michael Macleod-Ball lauded the reasoning behind Collins' decision.
"If a lower court could just overturn a higher court's opinion at any time, our court system would be in disarray," he said. "The notion of privacy in one's home is upheld. That's what we've been saying all along."