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Lawmakers Weigh Pot Testimony

Senate: Health panel advances bill
sought by Gov. Murkowski.

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Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Author: Sean Cockerham, Anchorage Daily News
Published: April 2nd, 2005
Copyright: 2005 The Anchorage Daily News 
Contact: [email protected] 

Juneau, Alaska -- The governor's attempt to outlaw at-home marijuana passed the Senate health committee Friday amid conflicting claims about whether pot is as harmful as alcohol.

Scientists from Harvard, the University of Southern California and the University of Alaska Fairbanks testified Friday against the governor's bill. Their statements contradicted testimony last week from state and federal drug officials who said pot is a dangerous drug.

The Senate Health and Social Services Committee table was stacked with massive binders and books with conflicting claims. Legislators weighed testimony from competing experts who each insisted the other side was wrong.

Opponents of the bill urged lawmakers to put it on the slow track; they said the three hearings the committee held were not nearly enough to go through the scientific evidence over marijuana.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, disagreed. Dyson, chairman of the committee, said testimony from state officials point to a marijuana problem. The bill has to keep moving or it can't pass in the final five weeks of the legislation session, he said.

"I want to be an action guy," Dyson said. "Blue ribbon panels and more studies are a place for things to die."

Dyson said the bill still has two more committees in the Senate and also the House to go through before it becomes law. He said he is going to read through more of the marijuana literature and will address the bill again in the finance committee.

The Alaska Supreme Court in September let stand a lower court ruling that adults have the right to possess less than four ounces of pot for personal use in their homes. The court ruled it is protected under the strong right to privacy in the state Constitution.

Gov. Frank Murkowski's bill, Senate Bill 74, seeks to create a legislative record of the harms of marijuana that the state can use in court to attempt to show it has an overriding interest in trumping the right to privacy.

The heart of the bill is 19 "findings" about what pot does to health and society.

The bill said marijuana is much more harmful than it was in the 1970s. That's a key point because a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision was the basis for the current legalization of at-home pot.

It's not true, testified Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"Marijuana is no more harmful today than it was in 1975," he asserted.

He said pot is "arguably" somewhat stronger than three decades ago. But that means people smoke less of it, Grinspoon said. He also disputed the bill's claims about the health effects of the smoke and that it is a steppingstone to use of other drugs.

"Given the extremely short time allotted for this hearing, there is no way I can thoroughly respond to all the erroneous findings," he said.

Mitch Earleywine, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, said science doesn't back up government claims of a link between marijuana and automobile accidents.

He also disputed the claims that marijuana is more harmful now than it was in the past.

"It's not completely harmless but certainly nowhere near as dangerous as presented," said Earleywine, who wrote a book on the subject.

The bill also declared that marijuana "has addictive properties similar to heroin." But studies show otherwise, testified Kelly Drew, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Drew said the data ranks pot as less addictive than tobacco, alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

Assistant attorney general Dean Guaneli, representing the governor, said he might want to revise the comparison between pot and heroin. But in general, he said, he is comfortable with the findings in the bill.

Guaneli pointed to last week's testimony from the White House office of drug control policy that there is growing evidence of the harmful impacts of pot, particularly on developing adolescents. He said the marijuana problem is worsening among the young and rural Natives.

"The point of the governor's bill is to focus on emerging problems," he said.

Dyson and Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, agreed there is enough evidence of a problem and gave the bill a "do pass" recommendation.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, a physician, let the bill move out of committee but with no recommendation. Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, passed on voting, saying she first wanted to take a closer look at whether the findings in the bill are accurate.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, opposed the bill, saying he didn't think the state made the scientific case. He said he was worried that the bill, which would also make it much easier to prosecute pot possession as a felony, would sap dollars needed to go after other crimes.

Related Articles & Web Site:

Dr. Lester Grinspoon

MJ Bill Ramps Up Debate on Drug's Potency

White House Expert: Pot is Dangerous

Hearing On Outlawing MJ Stirs Strong Feelings

Pot Issue Brought To Senate by State

Governor Moves To Change Pot Law





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