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Alaska Voters Have Sent Mixed Messages on Marijuana


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Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Author: Tataboline Brant, Anchorage Daily News
Published: October 25, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Anchorage Daily News 
Contact: [email protected] 

Legalization: It was rejected in 2000, but medical use was allowed in 1998; voters decide again Nov. 2.

For the third time since 1998, Alaska voters will get marijuana mixed in with the candidates, issues and other ballot measures when they go to the polls Nov. 2.

Ballot Measure 2, which has drawn more cash than almost any ballot issue in Alaska history, asks once again whether voters want marijuana to be available without penalties statewide. If the proposal gets the nod of the majority of those voting, Alaskans 21 and older could under state law grow, use, sell or give away pot, though such activities would remain illegal under federal law.

Three polls over the final weeks of the campaign show Ballot Measure 2 losing, but by how much depends on whom you talk to. One shows a 29-point gap between the percentage of voters for and against, another shows 24 points and the third shows nine. 

Alaska voters have leaned both ways in the past. They legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 1998. Two years later, they turned down a measure similar to the one on the ballot now, though that initiative, which included retroactive amnesty and possible reparations for people convicted of pot crimes, didn't fail as miserably as some expected given its reach. About 41 percent of voters gave it a thumbs up.

Fast forward to 2004. Supporters of Ballot Measure 2 -- some back from the 2000 campaign -- have toned down their initiative to make it more appealing. Gone, for example, are the amnesty and reparations. And they've left the measure's language vague enough that, should it pass, city and state legislators could regulate pot like tobacco or alcohol and for public safety reasons.

Legalization foes make a formidable team: Gov. Frank Murkowski and his wife, a deputy White House drug czar sent north with an anti-drug message, Alaska State Troopers, Anchorage police, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, state and federal prosecutors, and the Alaska State Medical Association, which has about 600 physician members.

This side argues pot is a dangerous gateway drug that, if legalized, could send the wrong message to kids, exacerbate Alaska's substance abuse problems, create more work for police, and damage the state's economy and its relationship with the military.

But the other side contends marijuana is innocuous enough that it shouldn't be the government's business if adults want to smoke it. They say the prohibition of pot is a futile enterprise that wastes millions of tax dollars and argue that if the state would just regulate it -- perhaps even tax it -- it could save money, kill the black market and get pot out of kids' hands. At least four groups are pushing legalization, one with cash from hundreds of Alaskans and another with at least half a million dollars from the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. Earlier campaign finance reports showed that together, they were spending more than 50 times the amount of the sole opposition group, Alaskans Against the Legalization of Marijuana/Hemp.

Both sides, when addressing pot's health effects, agree that smoking it causes an altered state of mind and can cause short-term memory loss, such as not being able to remember what you ate for dinner the night before when you were high.

"Nobody disputes it's hard to remember what you do after you smoke a bowl," said Dr. Tim Hinterberger, a Ballot Measure 2 sponsor and associate professor for the biomedical program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Dr. Charles Herndon, an MD who opposes Ballot Measure 2, and Hinterberger also agree that marijuana smoke contains carcinogens. Herndon said marijuana's delivery system -- the way users take deep breaths of the unfiltered smoke and hold it -- can lead to lung diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, even lung cancer.

But Hinterberger said he knows of no documented cases where lung cancer was related solely to marijuana. He said he also has never heard of someone overdosing on pot.

Marijuana might be addictive, according to Herndon. But Hinterberger referred to a study by two pharmacologists that rated marijuana and caffeine the least addictive when measured against cocaine, heroin, alcohol and nicotine.

Much has been said during the campaign about the increased levels in marijuana of its chief intoxicant, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Herndon said figures from the DEA show marijuana's potency has increased drastically from what it was 25 years ago.

Hinterberger said it might be that the average potency has increased over time, but he doubts it's as high as the DEA says. "The higher potency per se does not make a more dangerous substance," he said, explaining that smokers adjust their consumption levels when pot is more potent. "It's just like drinking whiskey compared to drinking beer."

Hinterberger said there's no denying there are health concerns related to smoking pot. But, he said, "even if it were as bad as the most exaggerated claims, it's still no reason to throw people in jail. We don't apply that logic to alcohol and we don't apply it to tobacco."

That comparison -- marijuana vs. alcohol -- has arisen often in this and other legalization movements. Typically, legalization proponents point out that it is hypocritical to ban pot use while sanctioning the use of alcohol by most adults, which has devastating effects on Alaska communities.

A 70-year-old Palmer woman, interviewed after voting for legalization in 2000, saw it this way: "Liquor is so much worse. If a man gets drunk, he beats his wife. If he smokes marijuana, he eats her dinner."

Herndon said there is no question the monetary costs of alcohol on public safety and health are huge. But, he said, "two wrongs don't make a right."

Herndon said his main objection to legalization is not the possible detrimental effects marijuana can have on adult users' health. Rather, he said, he just doesn't buy the opposition's idea that legalization will make pot harder for kids to get.

"If you legalize it and grow it and sell it, there's more of it on the street," Herndon said. "It's of great concern when children and adolescents use psychoactive drugs because they are at a very vulnerable stage in their brain development."

Backers of Ballot Measure 2 do not quarrel with the assertion that kids should not be allowed to smoke pot. But they argue that too many kids already can because prohibition isn't working.

They have pointed to a recent state report that says nearly 50 percent of Alaska high school students surveyed in 2003 reported using marijuana at least once, a figure that deputy White House drug czar Scott Burns called "phenomenal."

Yes On 2 treasurer Ken Jacobus, former counsel for the Republican Party of Alaska, said it is time for Alaskans to try something new. Regulate, he said, and you will get rid of the black market and make pot harder for kids to get while giving adults, including medical marijuana patients, legal access.

Jacobus said Ballot Measure 2 gives city and state legislators leeway to allow villages to ban pot use and sales, like many have for alcohol. It would also allow lawmakers to prohibit driving while high and limit marijuana use in work and public places, he said.

"They could even tax it if they wanted to," Jacobus said. "I think because they tax the hell out of everything else they think is a sin, they'd tax this too."

Matt Fagnani, chairman of Alaskans Against the Legalization of Marijuana/Hemp and president of the local drug-testing firm WorkSafe Inc., called the idea of regulation "bunk."

"How do you regulate THC levels? Who sets the standard for how potent it can be?" he said. "The pro people want this to be settled on a state-by-state basis. But that's not how drug laws in this country work. If this is a legitimate fight, in the halls of Congress is where it needs to begin, not in the easy-to-pick-off states."

Deputy Anchorage police chief Audie Holloway called regulation "a joke."

"We'd have to set up a whole new regulatory agency," he said, referring to the state. "And it probably wouldn't even be legal, because (pot is) still illegal under federal law."

Asked what the federal government would do if Alaska legalizes marijuana, Burns said it would probably wait for the call from state officials asking for more federal resources. "Alaska will be the pot capitol of America if this passes," he said.

David Finkelstein, a former legislator and supporter of Ballot Measure 2, said that when voters passed the medical marijuana initiative in 1998, the Legislature went over it with a fine-tooth comb and added restrictions, such as a patient registry, and "the federal government did nothing."

Jacobus said that if the ballot measure wins voter approval, the conflict between state and federal drug laws would have to be resolved before there could be the kind of regulation that kills the black market.

He said perhaps Alaska could become a test case for the country on a new way of doing things. "We're going to have to get help from our federal representatives," he said, referring to Alaska's congressional delegation.

Herndon, addressing Ballot Measure 2 supporters' problem of dealing with federal prohibition, said, "That's the key weakness in their argument. ... There's no way Congress is going to pass a law that legalizes marijuana in this country. It's just not going to happen."

Holloway said local police don't go looking for small amounts of marijuana because it would be a waste of resources. But small amounts of marijuana are found, he said, because not everyone who smokes pot stays home and chills out. They drive or get in arguments. They're involved in robberies, shootings, even homicides.

Even if regulation could work, Holloway said, it's a bad idea. He referred sarcastically to alcohol: "That's been a huge success story," he said. "Let's see, how much does it pay for -- maybe a 10th, maybe a 100th of what it causes in problems? So we're going to add another thing out there?"

Ballot Measure 2 supporters recently commissioned a study that found marijuana prohibition costs the state well over $24 million annually. The report, by Boreal Economic Analysis & Research in Fairbanks, says those costs are not offset significantly by federal grant monies, fines or forfeitures. It concludes that even when using the most favorable figures, marijuana prohibition "is a costly failure."

"We've being doing the same thing for 30 years, and the problem has just gotten worse," Jacobus said. "We need a new approach."

Debate on marijuana measure set for Friday

Ballot Measure 2: This bill would remove civil and criminal penalties under state law for persons 21 years or older who grow, use, sell or give away marijuana or hemp products. State or local governments could not require a permit or license for personal cultivation or distribution of marijuana, but could regulate marijuana like alcohol or tobacco. It removes all existing state restrictions on prescription of marijuana by a doctor for all patients, including children. It allows for laws limiting marijuana use in public and to protect public safety.

Debate: There will be a debate on the marijuana initiative at 6 p.m. Friday at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Room 101 of the Business Education Building. 

Related Articles & Web Site:

Yes on 2 Alaska

Yes on Measure 2: MJ Initiative Will Restore Order

Marijuana Proponents Sue State, Leman

Transcript: The Abrams Report: Alaska Initiative 



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