A ballot measure seeking to legalize marijuana has cleared its first major hurdle, but it's unclear whether sponsors have enough time to put the question to voters in 2002.
The state on Friday approved an application for an initiative petition, meaning supporters may start collecting the 28,783 signatures required to get the measure on next year's ballot.
However, the deadline to submit the signatures in time for the 2002 election is Jan. 14, and sponsor Tim Hinterberger said the two-month window poses a challenge.
"We know we have a lot of support in the state. It's still going to be very difficult," said Hinterberger, who is pushing the measure through the Anchorage-based group Free Hemp In Alaska.
"It's going to take a massive effort by volunteers," Hinterberger said.
The measure is strongly opposed by Wev Shea, an Anchorage attorney who led an effort to defeat a similar ballot measure in 2000. Shea said he will fight the marijuana bill again and likened it to terrorism.
"The drug legalization movement is an attempt to destroy Alaska and this nation from the inside just as the terrorists are trying to destroy us from the outside," said Shea, who predicted sponsors would collect enough signatures in time for the 2002 ballot.
"Will I be fighting it? Yes, of course I will."
The measure would make it legal for people age 21 and older to grow, use, sell or give away marijuana or other hemp products, according to a state summary of the initiative.
Marijuana could be regulated like alcohol or tobacco and the measure allows for laws limiting marijuana use in some cases to protect public safety, the summary said.
Hinterberger and two other sponsors filed an initiative petition application earlier this year but it was rejected in July by the state Department of Law. State attorneys said the original measure included unconstitutional language, so the sponsors changed the wording and resubmitted it in September.
It passed legal muster the second time but Hinterberger called the delay a "major blow" to getting the measure on the 2002 ballot. If supporters miss the Jan. 14 deadline for next year's election, they will put the question to voters in 2004, Hinterberger said.
"That's our fallback position," he said.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.