Pot prop backers take new approach

This year's measure drops amnesty for marijuana crimes, allows for taxation

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2004

ANCHORAGE - A November ballot measure to support and regulate marijuana in Alaska is being bolstered by an organized campaign of the initiative's backers.

The group, called Yes on 2, has taken a different strategy from that employed in 2000, when a similar initiative was defeated.

Organizers are asking less of voters in an attempt to make the measure more appealing, they have enlisted a more carefully selected group of spokespeople and they have launched a statewide campaign of television and radio advertisements.

In 2000, proponents wanted the drug to be legal for those 18 and older. They also wanted the government to free some jailed inmates convicted of marijuana crimes and set up a commission to consider reparations for them. But 60 percent of voters turned the initiative down.

This year's initiative drops the amnesty and reparations and also increases the legal age of pot use to 21. It also allows for government regulation of marijuana similar to tobacco or alcohol and for laws limiting use in public and to protect public safety, such as forbidding people to drive under the drug's influence.

The measure also allows for taxation of marijuana.

"There's a little more common sense in the approach this time," said Republican Moderate Party founder Ray Metcalfe, who supports the measure.

Ken Jacobus, the group's treasurer and a former attorney for the Republican Party of Alaska, said one problem with state law as it stands now is that there is no way for residents - including medical marijuana patients - to legally obtain marijuana. Ballot Measure 2 would take care of that by regulating the drug, he said.

There does not appear to be any organized opposition to Ballot Measure 2, which is a concern for foes of the initiative.

"The legalizers have done a good job this time," said former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea, who backed a 1990 initiative to criminalize pot in Alaska and was also a key spokesman against legalization in 2000. "Have you seen the commercials? ... They're really professional."

Shea has called on federal and state prosecutors and Alaska politicians to take a strong stand on the issue. But U.S. Attorney for Alaska Tim Burgess and state Attorney General Greg Renkes both said that laws forbid them from using their positions to tell people how to vote.

They did say, however, that they believe marijuana is dangerous.

Gov. Frank Murkowski also by law cannot campaign against Ballot Measure 2. His personal feeling, according to a spokeswoman, is that legalizing marijuana could encourage use and abuse of the drug, which has damaging consequences to children and families.

"He is absolutely against it," said Murkowski's press secretary, Becky Hultberg.

Renkes said the notion that making Alaska's drug laws more permissive would somehow help better control marijuana use doesn't ring true.

"There's no data to prove that," he said.

Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, agreed. She said alcohol is regulated and kids still get their hands on it.

"It doesn't make sense that making this legal would hamper access," she said. "If anything, it sends a mixed message to kids that it's OK."

Alaska has gone back and forth on its marijuana laws over the last three decades. In 1975, the landmark case Ravin vs. State made it legal for adult Alaskans to possess a small amount of marijuana in their homes for personal use.

In 1990 voters criminalized all amounts of pot, but last year, the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed that, saying privacy rights guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution can't be taken away by voters or legislators. The Alaska Supreme Court earlier this month let that ruling stand by refusing to review the case.

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