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Marijuana Legalization Group Tries a New Strategy

Pro-pot side offers 'professional' ads, well-chosen speakers

 

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Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Author: Tataboline Brant, Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 23, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Anchorage Daily News 
Contact: [email protected] 
Website: http://www.adn.com/ 

A group calling itself Yes on 2 has begun campaigning in earnest for a November ballot measure to legalize and regulate marijuana in Alaska and has a strategy different from what voters saw for a similar, unsuccessful initiative in 2000.

This time around, organizers are asking less of voters in an attempt to make the measure more appealing in the Nov. 2 election. They also have enlisted a more carefully selected group of spokespeople to help make their pitch, including a biomedical professor, a former high-ranking state corrections officer and a prominent Republican Party official.

The statewide campaign, which includes television and radio spots and a push to get supporters registered to vote by the Oct. 3 deadline, has some opponents worried. 

"The legalizers have done a good job this time," said former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea, who backed a 1990 initiative to criminalize pot in Alaska and was also a key spokesman against legalization in 2000. "Have you seen the commercials? ... They're really professional."

There does not appear to be any organized opposition to Ballot Measure 2, another worry for initiative foes. "I'm very concerned," said Shea, who called on federal and state prosecutors and Alaska politicians to take a strong stand on the issue.

Shea said in his years in law enforcement he spoke with several junkies who told him "it all starts with marijuana or alcohol."

U.S. Attorney for Alaska Tim Burgess and state Attorney General Greg Renkes both said in interviews Tuesday that laws forbid them from using their positions to tell people how to vote. Both did say, however, that they believe marijuana is dangerous.

Gov. Frank Murkowski also by law cannot campaign against Ballot Measure 2. His personal feeling, according to a spokeswoman, is that legalizing marijuana could encourage use and abuse of the drug, which has damaging consequences to children and families.

"He is absolutely against it," said Murkowski's press secretary, Becky Hultberg.

Alaska has gone back and forth on its marijuana laws over the last three decades.

In 1975, the landmark case Ravin vs. State made it legal for adult Alaskans to possess a small amount of marijuana in their homes for personal use. But in 1990 voters criminalized all amounts of pot.

That initiative appeared to kill Ravin. But last year, the Alaska Court of Appeals weighed in, saying that wasn't so. The Ravin ruling was based on privacy rights guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution, the appellate court said, which can't be taken away by voters or legislators. The Alaska Supreme Court earlier this month let that ruling stand by refusing to review the case.

The first big push to legalize all amounts of marijuana statewide came in 2000. Proponents wanted the drug to be legal for those 18 and older and also wanted the government to set free some jail inmates convicted of marijuana crimes and set up a commission to consider reparations for them. Sixty percent of voters turned the initiative down.

Shea said it was easy debating that measure. "It was just gross overreaching" on the part of legalization backers, he said.

This year's initiative drops the amnesty and reparations ideas and also increases the legal age of pot use to 21. It also allows for government regulation of marijuana similar to tobacco or alcohol and for laws limiting use in public and to protect public safety, such as forbidding people to drive under the drug's influence. The measure also allows for taxation of marijuana.

"There's a little more common sense in the approach this time," said Republican Moderate Party founder Ray Metcalfe, who supports the measure.

The 2000 campaign, which had several groups behind it, also lacked a unified front, said Yes on 2 treasurer Ken Jacobus, who last year stepped down as attorney for the Republican Party of Alaska in an amicable split after he said his involvement in preparing the marijuana initiative and other issues made him "too much of a lightning rod."

Jacobus said the campaign for the 2000 initiative "was worse than unorganized. They were fighting with each other."

The current campaign has some new faces, the most visible of whom is the paid Yes on 2 spokesman, Bill Parker, a former legislator and deputy commissioner of corrections in Alaska from 1995 until his retirement in 2002.

Parker said in a recent interview that Alaskans should vote for Ballot Measure 2 because it would protect individual privacy rights, stop the government from wasting taxpayer dollars to fight marijuana and regulate the drug in a way that will make it harder for kids to get but easier for adults to obtain legally. Drug dealers don't discriminate between children and adults by asking for an ID, Parker said.

At the Yes on 2 campaign kickoff last Thursday evening, in a loft-type office on Northern Lights Boulevard, Parker seemed confident the measure would pass.

"We are going to change the laws in this state on marijuana," he declared to a crowd of about 200 supporters who had gathered for the party, which featured food, drinks and a drum circle.

Jacobus said one problem with state law as it stands now is that there is no way for residents -- including medical marijuana patients -- to legally obtain marijuana. Ballot Measure 2 would take care of that by regulating the drug, he said. "Kids should not be able to get it anywhere."

Renkes said the notion that making Alaska's drug laws more permissive would somehow help better control marijuana use just doesn't ring true. "There's no data to prove that," he said.

Jennifer de Vallance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, agreed. She said alcohol is regulated and kids still get their hands on it. "It doesn't make sense that making this legal would hamper access," she said. "If anything, it sends a mixed message to kids that it's OK."

Jacobus said for him Ballot Measure 2 is all about individual rights. "I don't smoke marijuana," he said. "I don't think it's good for you. But I don't drink either." If people want to use those substances, that should be their business, not the government's, he said.

Dr. Tim Hinterberger, an assistant professor for the biomedical program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a sponsor of Ballot Measure 2, said marijuana is widely recognized as being far less toxic than substances such as cocaine or alcohol. He said he has never heard of a case where someone died from a pot overdose. In terms of addictiveness, pot is more on par with caffeine, he said.

Renkes challenged that assertion too, saying pot is addictive and mind-altering and can lead to worse drugs. He called substance abuse "the most serious social issue facing the state," noting that many crimes, injuries, deaths, as well as about 87 percent of incarcerations in Alaska are related to alcohol and drug abuse.

Alaska spends more money per capita on drug prevention and treatment than any other state in country, Renkes said. "This is a problem that we all share," he said. "I'm offended by Outside money and Outside groups coming here and thinking that they can easily impact our laws."

Yes on 2 is funded by individual donations and contributions from two main groups: Alaskans For Marijuana Regulation and Control, which gets most of its funding from the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, and Alaska Rights and Revenues, which gets its funding from 800 Alaska donors and an Outside group called The Foundation for Constitutional Protection, according to each group's treasurer.

David Finkelstein, treasurer of Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control, said he expected Yes on 2 to spend "hundreds of thousands" of dollars on its campaign.

Which is yet another worry for initiative opponents. "That's a frustrating part of the drug legalization movement," de Vallance said. "There is no well-funded political movement to keep our society safe."

No clear picture on how the state would go about regulating marijuana has emerged. Both sides do agree on one point, however: Even if the initiative passes, marijuana would still be illegal in Alaska under federal law.


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