Governor set to push anti-marijuana legislation again

Posted: Friday, December 09, 2005

The Murkowski administration will "hit the ground running" next session on a bill proposed last year to overturn a court decision on marijuana use, said Alaska Department of Law spokesman Mark Morones.

Alaskans are allowed to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use, but the bill could make possessing any amount of marijuana illegal.

The Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee heard from experts last session on both sides of the issue - some arguing marijuana is a threat to society and others saying pot is less harmful than a pack of cigarettes.

The bill is awaiting action in the Senate Finance Committee before it reaches the floor. Then it would head over to the House for review.

Alaska Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli said some of the state's arguments were misunderstood last session. The purpose of the bill is not to bust college students smoking pot in their dorms, but to go after commercial growers, he said.

"The police are not getting effective search warrants for marijuana growing operations," Guaneli said.

Even though officers can smell marijuana coming from a residence, it is not enough evidence to prove there is more than the 4 ounces needed to get a search warrant, he said.

Those possessing more than 4 ounces would be charged with a Class C felony and those with an ounce would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, according to the bill. Possession of less than an ounce would be deemed a class B misdemeanor.

Michael Macleod-Ball, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said the bill does not increase penalties for those growing commercial marijuana.

"Criminalizing those with small amounts of marijuana does not solve the problem," he said.

The bill also tampers with a right to privacy ruling that is unique to Alaska, Macleod-Ball said.

"All it does is give the police the ability to go into someone's home if they believe they have marijuana," he said.

A landmark court decision by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1975 made small amounts of marijuana kept at home by adults legal. It found no relationship between private use of the drug and the public welfare.

Experts who phoned in to the Senate committee meetings last session tried to show that in some cases smoking marijuana could lead to violence.

"If I smoke marijuana, I may not be led to rob a store. But I can lose my job and then be motivated to steal," John Fielder, a clinical psychologist at St. Mary's Medical Hospital in San Francisco, told the Senate committee last session.

The bill hearings are a platform to get testimony on the record so that if the bill passes, the findings can be used in court, Guaneli said.

The state will charge someone for possession of marijuana if the bill passes and use the suspect's trial to introduce the findings in the bill, he said. The judge may or may not use the findings to make his decision to overturn the long-standing ruling, Guaneli said.

The state wants to prevent marijuana from getting into the hands of children by going after local growers; if authorities can take out about half of the producers, then kids would be priced out of the market, Guaneli said.

The bill, Senate Bill 74, was bogged down last year because it was introduced in the middle of the session and needed extra time to get through the testimonies, Guaneli said.

Bills proposed last session that did not reach the House and Senate floors for a final vote are still alive because bills introduced in the two-year session remain on the table through 2006.

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