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Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Author: Sheila Toomey, Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 15, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Anchorage Daily News 
Contact: [email protected] 
Website: http://www.adn.com/ 

State Ruling: Federal anti-drug laws on possession remain in place.

The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld the right of adult Alaskans to possess up to four ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use. The high court accomplished this by letting stand a lower court opinion issued last year, which breathed life into a 1975 ruling thought by many to be obsolete.

Attorney General Gregg Renkes and Fairbanks defense attorney Bill Satterberg agreed Tuesday that the four-ounce personal-use allowance is now indisputably the law, although it does not immunize Alaskans against federal drug statutes. 

If this sounds like the end of the matter, don't be fooled. Alaskans have been arguing about marijuana for 30 years, and this is just the latest "final" ruling.

The 1975 decision, known as Ravin v. State, concluded that Alaskans' constitutional right to privacy outweighs any social harm that might be caused by at-home use of small amounts of marijuana.

The Alaska Constitution has a special guarantee of privacy from government interference, one not included in the federal Constitution. The Ravin decision says the right is not absolute but concludes the state has to jump some pretty high hurdles to justify interfering with what a person does to him or herself in his or her own home. The state failed to prove that possessing a small amount of marijuana for private, adult, at-home use justified such interference, the justices said nearly 30 years ago.

"The state cannot impose its own notions of morality, propriety, or fashion on individuals when the public has no legitimate interest in the affairs of those individuals," Ravin says.

The decision expressed disapproval of marijuana use and upheld laws against the sale, distribution, driving under the influence, use by minors or use outside the home thereof.

"It is the responsibility of every individual to consider carefully the ramifications for himself and for those around him of using such substances. With the freedom which our society offers to each of us to order our lives as we see fit goes the duty to live responsibly," Ravin said.

Ravin did not mention a specific amount, but in 1982 the Legislature said anything under four ounces would be considered a personal-use stash, absent any evidence of sales or distribution.

Ravin remained the law in Alaska until 1990, when voters passed an initiative outlawing all amounts of marijuana. The initiative appeared to "overturn" Ravin, and law enforcement around the state began prosecuting people for possession of small amounts.

One of those people was David Noy of North Pole. According to Satterberg, his attorney, Noy was arrested after police reported they could smell his five marijuana plants in his home from 300 feet away. A jury convicted him of possession of less than eight ounces.

Satterberg appealed the conviction, arguing among other points that the 1990 initiative recriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was illegal.

The Court of Appeals agreed. The exception for personal use at home was based on a constitutional right, which could not be taken away by the Legislature or a ballot initiative, the court said in an Aug. 29, 2003, decision.

With the renewal of Ravin, Alaska joins 11 other states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use, although many of those still fine people for possession, according to Kris Kane, assistant director of NORML, a national organization seeking regulated legalization of the drug.

Renkes doesn't think Alaska should be in that select group. The world of drugs and addiction has changed in the 30 years since Ravin was decided, he said Tuesday. The balancing test between privacy rights and the harm that drugs do needs to be re-examined in light of the new information, he said.

"I respect and will abide by" the Ravin/Noy ruling, Renkes said.

"We're going to try to write a law the Supreme Court would uphold," he said. "We're going to take a fairly methodical approach."

Renkes said he envisions extensive legislative hearings, laying out a complete record of the importance of anti-marijuana laws and the damage done by legalizing even small amounts. Should the Legislature pass a new law, and should it be challenged, the courts would have a complete record on which to base a new decision, he said.

People familiar with drug prosecutions said the Ravin/Noy ruling probably won't have much effect on who goes to jail. People are almost never charged only with possession in their home of less than four ounces, said Anchorage attorney Karen Bretz, who has defended drug cases in the Mat-Su. Most of her cases deal with larger amounts, she said.

"I think it will encourage the police to use their resources for more productive things than prosecuting marijuana cases," Bretz said.

Renkes and Jason Brandeis, staff attorney for the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, both warned that possession of marijuana is still against federal law.

"The feds can break into your house if you have an ounce of marijuana, and you can be charged federally," Brandeis said.

Renkes said the state does not intend to feed the names of home-use suspects to the feds for prosecution, but state law enforcement will continue to work closely with federal agencies on drug cases that interest both entities, he said, regardless of the amount of drugs involved.

Lawyers said the Ravin/Noy ruling does not appear to affect a November ballot initiative that removes all civil and criminal penalties for adult growth, possession and sale of marijuana and proposes regulation similar to alcohol controls.

Daily News reporter Sheila Toomey can be reached at:  [email protected]


To Read the Ravin Decision in Full:  http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/legal/l1970/ravin.htm

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