Alaska group takes step to legalize ganja

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A citizens’ group hoping to make Alaska the third state in the nation to legalize recreational use of marijuana took a step closer Wednesday, submitting more than 46,000 signatures to the state election office.

If enough signatures are verified — they need about 30,000 qualified signatures — the question of whether to make pot legal in the nation’s northernmost state will go before voters in the August 19 primary. Signatures must come from at least seven per cent of voters in at least 30 House districts.

“It’s clear that Alaskans are eager to have an opportunity to express their displeasure with the current system and make a change,” said one of sponsors, Tim Hinterberger, a professor in the School of Medical Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I have a great feeling today,” said another sponsor, Mary Reff, after she and other volunteers carried in 20 boxes of signatures to the state elections office in Anchorage.

Voters in Colorado and Washington state last year legalized marijuana, and the language of the Alaska initiative is similar to the Colorado measure.

“We have no reason to think our campaign will be any less successful,” Hinterberger said.

State election officials have 60 days to accept or deny the initiative for the ballot, Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said in an email to The Associated Press.

The state has a complicated relationship with marijuana.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that banning home use and possession of small amounts of marijuana violated a constitutional right to privacy. Since then, activists and others have battled over the law and its implications.

The 1975 decision did not mention a specific amount one could possess, but in 1982 the Alaska Legislature determined less than four ounces was fine unless there was evidence of sales or distribution. That amount was later reduced to one ounce.

The law remains murky. In 2006, the Alaska Legislature passed a law re-criminalizing small amounts of ganja at home. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska challenged the law on privacy grounds and won in Superior Court. But the state appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which threw out the lower court decision but didn’t clarify the conflict with the earlier law.

This initiative, Hinterberger said, will bring Alaska statute into accordance with the 1975 Supreme Court decision and the 1982 possession of one ounce.

“We’re just going to try to remove any ambiguity,” he said.

No formal opposition has formed to the proposed initiative.

If the measure qualifies for the ballot, he anticipates a high-profile campaign with radio and TV advertising. Hinterberger didn’t identify any financial supporters, saying those will be made public when campaign finance forms are submitted. The Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for fewer restrictions on marijuana across the country, has previously pledged support for the Alaska proposal.

The initiative makes possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants, including three flowering, legal for adults 21 and older. However, it does not allow the public consumption of weed. Anyone smoking in public would face a US$100 fine.

It also makes the manufacture, sale and possession of marijuana accessories legal.

The proposed initiative would grant regulatory control to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but also give the Alaska Legislature the option to create a Marijuana Control Board.

The control board would have nine months to enact regulations, and applications will be accepted one year after the effective date of the initiative.

The proposal creates the establishment of marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, infused-product manufacturers and marijuana testing facilities. An excise tax of US$50 per ounce will be placed on sales or transfers from a cultivation facility to a retail store or infused-product manufacturer.

Local communities could ban the use of marijuana, but communities cannot prohibit private possession and plant growing at home. Employers also are allowed to impose restrictions on marijuana use by employees.