Alaskans will decide next month whether to overturn a state law making marijuana possession illegal, but a court decision in 2003 may make the effort moot.
Legalization advocates are pumping hundreds of thousands in campaign dollars from outside Alaska to promote passage of Ballot Measure 2, while an opposition group in Anchorage operates on a shoestring budget of about $10,000.
The marijuana initiative is one of four ballot questions voters will decide on in the Nov. 2 election.
"I'm concerned," said former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea, an Anchorage lawyer who prosecuted federal drug cases in the early 1990s. "I'm concerned any time someone comes in and targets Alaskans."
He said recent television and radio advertisements are funded by an organization based in Washington, D.C., known as the Marijuana Policy Project. He said one of the ads aims to mislead the public by suggesting that the government could target guns, alcohol or cigarettes next.
He said the legalization issue was decided this year when the state Supreme Court allowed an appeals court ruling to stand permitting possession in the home.
"According to Alaska state law right now you can possess up to four ounces of marijuana," Shea said. "If that's the law now, why are they bringing up these ads that you are going to lose the right to privacy?"
Al Anders of Juneau, a coordinator for the advocacy group Yes On 2, denied the charges that the legalization effort is pushed by an Outside group. Anders also is a former chairman for the Libertarian Party of Alaska and candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
"I find it laughable to refer to this initiative as being funded by outside money," Anders said, noting that he alone collected 9,000 of the signatures to certify the initiative. "We put this thing on the ballot by ourselves."
Alaskans have spent the last three decades arguing over the state's marijuana laws. In 1975, the state Supreme Court issued its landmark Ravin versus State decision, protecting possession of marijuana for personal use under the Alaska Constitution. It added, though, that the possession of amounts of marijuana that indicate an "intent to sell rather than for personal use" remained illegal. The Supreme Court noted in its decision that although it maintained an individual's freedom to use marijuana "we wish to make clear that we do not mean to condone the use of marijuana."
The Legislature in 1982 passed a law drawing the line for home use at four ounces, but a 1990 citizen initiative criminalized possession. That was considered state law until 2003, when the Alaska Court of Appeals decided that the constitutional protection to privacy cannot be trumped by a citizen initiative. Attorney General Greg Renkes petitioned the state Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling but was denied a hearing last month.
Paul Grant, a Juneau attorney who serves on the state board of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that although the constitution trumps the power of initiative, this initiative would do more than just legalize possession.
It also fills in gaps left by the court decision, such as establishing guidelines for possession of industrial hemp products and protecting doctors who recommend marijuana use to their patients, he said.
Grant said he believes this year's initiative has a much better chance than a similar legalization effort in 2000 that won only 41 percent of the vote. The 2000 initiative would have legalized possession of four ounces for those 18 and older. The proposal also would have provided amnesty for those convicted of marijuana-related crimes and established an advisory group to review restitution for those arrested.
This year's initiative allows those 21 and older to possess four ounces or less for personal use in their home and allows the state to regulate marijuana like alcohol or tobacco.
"Certainly this version is more moderate and it's going to attract people who couldn't swallow the idea of amnesty and couldn't swallow the possibility of restitution," Grant said.
Steve Mihalik, an organizer for the anti-legalization movement, said he believes that most people do not support drug use, despite the collection of more than 28,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.
"We need to make sure we don't get confused between support and a signature," said Mihalik, general manager of the Anchorage drug-testing firm WorkSafe, Inc. "Not many people take the time to read four pages of the petition initiative."
He argued that marijuana use is a gateway to more harmful drugs like cocaine and that legalizing it will make it more available to children.
"The first cigarette I smoked was the one I stole from my parents," he said.
Grant argued that many people across the state already use marijuana and use it responsibly.
"I don't think there's any evidence that decriminalizing marijuana is going to change use patterns," Grant said. "I don't think decriminalizing it is going to make it any easier for high school kids to get ahold of it. Regulating it, in my view, is going to make it harder to get a hold of because the supply is going to be under control."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.