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Alaska to vote on pot legislation this August

Published time: February 06, 2014 16:50
Reuters / Baz Ratner

Reuters / Baz Ratner

Marijuana advocates in Alaska have obtained more than enough signatures to ensure voters there will have the opportunity this year to weigh-in on a measure that could legalize recreational marijuana, state officials admitted this week.

As of Tuesday, a petition that would let residents of the forty-ninth state vote to make pot legal for adults surpassed a 30,169 signature threshold, all but clearing the way for the issue to appear in ballot booths during elections there on August 19.

"The initiative has met the state requirement for signatures," Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Alaska's Division of Elections, told Reuters. "It's a matter now of officially getting the certification documents signed by the lieutenant governor."

If that measure succeeds, then Alaska will join Colorado and Washington to become the third state in America that has outright bypassed a long-standing federal pot prohibition.

Nationwide, United States law currently considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic on par with heroin and ecstasy. Voters in the states of Washington and Colorado elected in 2012 to ignore federal legislation, however, and instead work towards ways to implement legal, recreational weed for adults over the age of 21.

The latest effort out of Alaska involves advocating for a bill modeled after the Colorado law currently in place, and if approved would let residents possess up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana and grow up to six plants, as well as pave the way for creation of a system to tax and regulate sales of the drug.

Recreational marijuana sales in Colorado surpassed $1 million in just one day when weed became legal there on January 1 of this year, and state officials expect to reap upwards of 70-times that in tax revenue alone by the end of December. If the effort in Alaska succeeds, then the state will impose a $50-per-ounce tax on legally sold marijuana and mandate that officials begin striving to implement rules for regulating the sale of marijuana in licensed stores within nine months of enactment.

Alaska is currently one of 20 states in the US that has rules in place for medicinal marijuana, but a win for pot proponents in August would mean yet another victory for a growing, nationwide movement to legalize and decriminalize marijuana for all adults, and not just those with a doctor’s note.

"It appears voters will have the opportunity in August to replace the failed policies of marijuana prohibition with a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed like alcohol in Alaska," Taylor Bickford, a spokesperson for a campaign favoring the state weed bill, told the Alaska Dispatch this week.

Currently, state law allows for officials to jail anyone found in possession of marijuana outside of the privacy of their own home for up to 90 days, as well as subject them to a $2,000 fine. The bill currently being discussed there would not make it legal for residents to roam the streets consuming cannabis, but residents with modest amounts of marijuana on their person wouldn’t be forced to pay heavy fines or worry about incarceration.

Kevin Sabet, a co-founder of the anti-legalization Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told Reuters this week that his group has yet officially come out swinging against the pro-pot campaign.

"There is no formal opposition in Alaska just yet, but SAM has been approached by Alaskan activists who don't want to see the safety problems and burdensome government regulation that would come with legalization," Sabet said.

In the meantime, though, even the administration of US President Barack Obama has openly admitted recently that weed is not as dangerous as government officials once insisted.

“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” Pres. Obama told reporters at the New Yorker for an interview published last month. "[W]e should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing,” he said.

Then on the floor of Congress just this week, Obama’s deputy drug czar, Michael Botticelli, told the House of Representatives Oversight Committee that he couldn’t dispute the fact that alcohol abuse isn’t comparable with any similar issues involving marijuana.

"Voters are quickly coming to realize that marijuana is not remotely as harmful as they were once led to believe,'' Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, added to USA Today this week. "If voters take an objective look at the evidence, they will likely arrive at the conclusion that marijuana prohibition has been just as wasteful and problematic as alcohol prohibition.''

A decade ago, a poll among Alaskans conducted by Ivan Moore Research found that only 38 percent of residents across the state favored decriminalization. That number jumped to 43 percent in 2010, the Anchorage Daily News reported this week, and a survey conducted last year by Public Policy Polling in conjunction with the Marijuana Policy Project determined that a majority of Alaskans — 54 percent — would favor a change in state law.

"There has been phenomenal change," Ivan Moore, a pollster and political consultant from the forty-ninth state, told the paper this week.

Back in the lower 48, the city council of Washington, DC moved forward as well this week with an effort to decriminalize marijuana in the nation’s capital. Lawmakers voted 11-1 on a bill that, if approved, would eliminate jail time for Washingtonians caught with small amounts of weed.