ANCHORAGE - An initiative to decriminalize marijuana in Alaska may end up on the 2004 ballot after all.
The state will not appeal a court order to reconsider nearly 200 petition booklets that were invalidated by state elections officials, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said Monday.
The state's decision was influenced by weighing the cost of appealing the court order against the risk of losing.
"The risk wasn't worth the cost," said Leman, a former state senator who sponsored a bill in 1999 to restrict the state's medical marijuana laws.
In a Sept. 23 ruling, Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock ordered Leman and the state Division of Elections to take another look at the rejected booklets, saying officials did not do enough to help proponents through the complicated initiative process.
As a result of the state's actions, proponents came up more than 7,000 signatures short of the required 28,742.
Elections workers are counting the resurrected ballot signatures and will have a final tally by the Nov. 23 deadline set by Suddock, said Leman, who oversees the elections division.
Timothy Hinterberger, a sponsor of the measure, said initiative supporters are confident they have enough valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot. Hinterberger was among initiative backers that sued the state after the initiative was turned down in January.
Proponents had collected about 50,000 signatures, Hinterberger said. Each petition booklet contains 150 lines for signatures, so the 194 petition booklets rejected earlier potentially represent 29,100 signatures that can now be reviewed in light of the state's decision not to appeal.
"We're pleased, of course," said Hinterberger, who attended Monday's news conference. "We did not believe there were strong grounds for appeal. Now we can educate voters."
Hinterberger said proponents expect the initiative to fare better than a more sweeping measure rejected by voters in 2000 that sought to legalize marijuana and provide reparations for some drug convicts. The new measure would decriminalize marijuana for people at least 21 years old and "open the way for agricultural production of hemp products," Hinterberger said.
The ultimate goal for supporters is to see government regulate marijuana the same as alcohol.
"Drug policies overall are full of contradictions and hypocrisy," Hinterberger said. "Prohibition of a popularly used substance does not work in a free society."
Leman - a critic of efforts to decriminalize marijuana - said his views had nothing to do with the process that led to disqualifying the initiative. He was acting on a recommendation by the Division of Elections, followed by a second opinion from the Department of Law in January, shortly after he took office.
"There are initiatives I don't agree with that I have certified and some that I do agree with that I have not certified," Leman said.
Suddock had criticized elections officials for finding trivial problems or standing by and allowing proponents to make errors while gathering signatures.
In his ruling, Suddock said Alaska's initiative process is intended to be viewed liberally and the group's constitutional rights should not hinge on trivial reporting violations.
Leman said Suddock was following the "spirit of the law rather than the law itself." Still, he conceded, problems within the division were present before he took office in December. They have since been identified and are being corrected, he said. Others would require statutory changes, a process Leman said his office will take up with the Legislature.
"The rules of petition need to be more clear," Leman said. "I want Alaskans to understand them and be able to follow them."
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