Pot debate draws in top leaders

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2000

Alaska could become the Holland of America with passage of Ballot Measure No. 5, the initiative to legalize marijuana.

But whether that's good or bad is hotly debated.

Gov. Tony Knowles, U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski and other political heavyweights are urging Alaskans to vote no on the initiative next week.

They note that the ballot language not only permits the use of marijuana by all adults but also applies retroactively, erasing past crimes from the books, freeing prisoners and setting up a panel to consider restitution for people who have been convicted of crimes involving marijuana. Although marijuana would remain illegal under federal law, state funds and personnel could not be used in federal law enforcement activities related to the drug.

Proponents are trying to trade on Alaska's historical culture of independence, as a well as a 1975 state Supreme Court decision that found personal use of marijuana protected under the state's constitutional right to privacy. A 1990 initiative recriminalizing marijuana shouldn't prevail over a Supreme Court opinion that still stands, they say.

Holland, where marijuana has been legal for almost 25 years, is the poster child for the yes campaign.

Mitch Mitchell of Anchorage, a leader of the ballot group Free Hemp in Alaska, told Juneau middle school students during a recent forum that Holland has half the teen-age drug abuse rate of the United States.

"I don't think any kid should smoke marijuana," Mitchell said. But the drug is infinitely safer than tobacco, which contributes to 400,000 deaths a year, and alcohol, which causes another 150,000, he said. "You can't ruin someone's life more than by ending it."

But National Families in Action, an Atlanta-based drug education policy center, takes issue with the depiction of Holland.

The group is calling attention to an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine last year that describes Holland as "the drugs capital of western Europe." With legalization of marijuana, the country became a major conduit for the distribution of heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs throughout the continent, even as the use of marijuana among young adults leapt by more than 200 percent, according to the article.

National Families in Action says Alaska already has a problem: A 1999 household survey on drug abuse, recently released by a federal agency, shows the state leading the nation in illicit drug use.

According to the survey, which included residents 12 years and older, 2.8 percent of Alaskans reported they were dependent upon an illegal drug in the past year, which tied with Nevada for No. 1. Alaska also was No. 1 for drug use within a month of the survey, with 10.7 percent saying they had used an illegal substance. Specifically for marijuana, Alaska ranked fifth in past-month use, at 7.2 percent, according to the survey.

But Free Hemp in Alaska says the state leads the nation in another statistic arrests. Per 100,000 people, Alaska's arrest rate in a recent year was 417, the group says.

Law enforcement officers brandish weapons and kick in doors because of a drug "that never killed anybody," Mitchell said. If Knowles and other politicians are concerned about the welfare of youth, "Ask them what happens to 18-year-old kids in prison, and ask them what good can come from that."

Sherrie Myers of Juneau, who fought marijuana cultivation on federal lands when she was a member of the U.S. Forest Service, said there isn't an absolute right to freedom.

"We each give up a certain amount of freedom so we can co-exist peacefully," she said.

Wev Shea of Anchorage, a former U.S. attorney who is working with the ballot group No On 5, said today he's encouraged by recent polling data showing a majority of Alaskans against the initiative.

Shea also said a successful court challenge could be mounted against the portion of the initiative that exonerates marijuana offenders retroactively.

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