Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Tomas Alex Tizon, Times Staff Writer
Published: October 30, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Los Angeles Times
Contact: [email protected]
Foes and proponents are focused on a slaying that the suspect says he can't recall because he had been smoking pot.
Anchorage -- A 16-year-old pot-smoker arrested in a grisly slaying has become the talk of the town as Alaskans consider whether to make their state the first to fully decriminalize marijuana.
The teen was charged this month with killing his stepmother and keeping her body in a freezer for three days as he drove friends to the mall in her car.
After his arrest, he told police he had fought with the stepmother over his chronic marijuana use but could not remember the details of her death because he had been stoned at the time.
Both opponents and supporters of Ballot Measure 2 — which would make it legal for those 21 and older to grow, use or distribute marijuana and allow the government to regulate sales — seized the murder case to bolster their arguments.
"They say pot doesn't cause people to be dangerous. I know it isn't true," said Audie Holloway, deputy chief of the Anchorage Police Department.
He and other opponents describe the slaying as an example of the bad things that happen when people smoke marijuana.
Ken Jacobus, a supporter of the initiative, said opponents were simply trying to scare the public, and that the fact that a juvenile had easily obtained pot was proof that current drug laws didn't work.
"Marijuana didn't kill the stepmother. The kid killed his stepmother," said Jacobus.
Supporters of the ballot measure hope to benefit from the momentum gained from a state Supreme Court action last month that upheld the right of adult Alaskans to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use — a right that has been challenged on and off since Alaska's Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that adults could possess a limited amount of marijuana.
The high court's action confirmed Alaska as the most marijuana-tolerant state in the nation. In 2002, Nevada voters rejected a statewide initiative that would have decriminalized the drug.
If adopted, the Alaska ballot measure would set a general policy toward marijuana; it would be up to the state Legislature to figure out the details of implementing it, including possible taxation of pot sales, as for of alcohol and tobacco.
Some have suggested that if implemented to the fullest, the law could open the way for marijuana retail outlets similar to state liquor stores.
But both sides agree that many legal and legislative hurdles stand in the way of such a scenario.
Voters in Montana and Oregon will also decide on marijuana-related initiatives Tuesday — but those measures relate to medical use.
If those measures pass, Montana will become the tenth state to legalize medicinal-use marijuana, and Oregon will expand its existing medical-marijuana program by creating dispensaries, authorizing growers to sell the drug for a profit, and increasing the amount a patient can possess from 3 ounces to 1 pound.
California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Vermont, Washington and Alaska have already adopted laws allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Alaska voters approved medical marijuana in 1998, but voted against a ballot measure in 2000 that would have legalized pot for any resident 18 and older. That measure also called for amnesty and reparations for people convicted of marijuana crimes. Only 40% of voters approved that measure.
Organizers admitted they "overreached" the first time, and came out this year with the new initiative that they believed would be more acceptable to voters.
Polls show the measure losing, with the gap between the percentage of voters for and against ranging from 9 to 29 points.
The initiative sets a higher legal age for possession and omits the amnesty and reparation provisions. The campaign has garnered a diverse set of spokespersons, among them a biomedical professor, a former Juneau legislator and a state deputy commissioner of corrections.
Jacobus was attorney for the Republican Party of Alaska until last year.
Now he argues on behalf of a drug that he says he neither uses nor recommends. But he says the war on drugs is a failure, and one result is a thriving black market for marijuana.
"It's easier for young people in Alaska to get marijuana than it is to get alcohol," Jacobus said. "Drug dealers don't ask for ID."
He said government regulation would take the enterprise out of the hands of criminals, and put it into the hands of officials who could regulate what was sold, how it's sold and to whom it's sold. And the pot could be taxed just like alcohol and tobacco.
Tim Hinterberger, a biomedical professor at the University of Alaska and a sponsor of Ballot Measure 2, said a study commissioned by supporters found that the state spent up to $24 million a year prosecuting marijuana crimes.
That money, Hinterberger said, could be spent on more worthy social causes.
The Yes on 2 campaign got a huge boost from a Washington, D.C.-based marijuana advocacy group, the Marijuana Policy Project, which donated about $550,000, most of it used for television and radio ads.
The donation money has made the campaign one of the best-funded initiative efforts in the state's history.
The forces arrayed against Ballot Measure 2 are powerful, if not as well-funded, having raised about $15,000.
They include Gov. Frank Murkowski and his wife, Nancy, Alaska State Troopers, Anchorage police and the Alaska State Medical Assn., which has about 600 physician members.
Nancy Murkowski said passage of the initiative would be "a cancer to our state."
Opponents say marijuana is a dangerous drug that leads users to even harder drugs, and legalizing it would make Alaska's drug- and alcohol-abuse problem worse.
One of the leaders of the No on 2 campaign, Matthew Fagnani, president of a local drug-testing firm, said today's pot is much stronger than that of the 1960s and 1970s.
Higher levels of the main intoxicant, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in today's marijuana, especially that grown in Alaska, make the drug much more powerful in altering behavior and impairing judgment, Fagnani said.
He, too, brought up the case of Colin Cotting, the 16-year-old charged in his stepmother's slaying. And he cited a study that found that 36% of males and 26% of females arrested in Alaska tested positive for marijuana.
"How do you regulate THC levels? Who comes up with the science to determine how much THC should go in a joint?" Fagnani said.
Both Fagnani and Holloway, the Anchorage deputy police chief, said they couldn't see how it would be possible to set up a new state regulatory agency for marijuana while the drug remained illegal under federal law.
"The Legislature won't be able to come up with a workable law," Fagnani said. "This has to be handled at the federal level."
Supporters acknowledge there are a lot of unknowns about where the initiative will lead.
Federal law officers, who have avoided marijuana cases in Alaska for decades, have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the measure.
Meanwhile, Alaska residents like Marty Keef, 62, a disabled veteran who uses marijuana for chronic back and leg pain, are left to sort out the arguments.
Keef, of nearby Girdwood, said he leaned toward supporting the measure but also had serious reservations.
"I'm a card-carrying Libertarian. I believe that government has no place in private lives. On the other hand, this [ballot measure] could open up Pandora's box," Keef said, referring to the provisions that would allow legislators to regulate marijuana like alcohol and tobacco.
"This might give the 'antis' more tools to harass those of us who use marijuana," he said. "They could make it a thousand times worse for us."
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