Drug Use Gets Tougher Look on America's Last Frontier
`Fed up' Alaskans rethink legal status of marijuana, prompting battle over individual liberty in freedom-loving state
JUNEAU, ALASKA — WHILE the rest of the country hardens its stance on drugs, Alaska is thinking of getting tough too - by making them illegal. This is the only state in the country where marijuana in the home is legal. Now a number of lawmakers and grass-roots activists want to change that.
The drive is bringing into conflict two fundamental forces: the nation's toughening attitude toward drug use, and Alaska's culture of individual liberty, part of the frontier mystique of being able to do what you want without too much refereeing by the state.
``People are getting fed up with the drug scene here in general,'' says Matt Felix, director of the division of alcohol and drug abuse for the Alaska Department of Health. ``I think the marijuana issue is one way they are indicating their anxiety.''
Although everything in Alaska has its own peculiar dimensions, the debate here mirrors changes regarding marijuana nationwide. In the 1970s, many states made possession of small amounts of pot a petty offense, issuing the equivalent of traffic tickets rather than jail terms. The belief was that a couple of joints was not worth a criminal record or sending someone to Sing Sing.
Ten states decriminalized marijuana. Alaska went a step farther: Adults were allowed to possess up to four ounces in the home legally. The move was actually the outcome of a lawsuit in 1975, in which the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state's marijuana law violated an unusually strong privacy provision in the state constitution.
Now, amid rising concern over drugs, a few states and localities are rethinking their leniency. Maine lowered the amount of marijuana a person can be caught with and still receive a minor penalty. Oregon and Ann Arbor, Mich., increased the amount people can be fined for simple possession. Minnesota is debating recriminalizing the drug.
The shift to stiffer penalties is not wholesale: Bids failed in New York and North Carolina.
One of the most emotional fights, though, will occur here, in the closest thing the nation has to a last frontier. For years there have been attempts in the Legislature to make marijuana illegal in the home. They have been stymied in the Democrat-controlled House, where opponents of the move have been concerned about privacy and question what good it would do in the war on drugs.
As the law stands, it is legal for an adult to possess marijuana in the home, but it cannot be bought, sold, or transported. Nor are juveniles allowed to possess it.
``It is a tough issue,'' says House Speaker Sam Cotten (D), sitting in a caucus room outside his office, where former territorial governors, many bibbed with beards, stare down from portraits on the wall. ``I'm raising kids of my own. I don't want them to be exposed to dangerous drugs. On the other hand, I don't want them to go to jail if they smoke a joint.''
To get around the legislative process, some GOP lawmakers and citizen activists launched an initiative drive last year. They garnered 40,000 signatures, more than was expected, and the issue of whether to recriminalize the drug will go before Alaska voters in November.
``Marijuana itself may not be that dangerous, but it leads to use of other drugs that are,'' says state Rep. Terry Martin (R), a backer of the ballot measure.
The pique over pot has produced some peculiar alliances: liberals and libertarians against recriminalizing it, and conservatives and native Alaskan groups, among others, in favor of it.
Those who oppose the current status of the law argue that allowing adults to have marijuana in the home sends a signal that drugs are OK. Some native groups worry about its availability in the bush, where other drug problems, mainly alcohol, are already a concern.
``By having a law that says you can have four ounces in the home, we are giving kids the impression it is safe,'' says Rep. Alyce Hanley (R), a leader of the anti-marijuana forces.
How much is four ounces exactly?
Representative Hanley, matronly-looking in conservative gray dress and blue blouse, comes bounding across her sixth-floor office here holding a large baggie filled with dried parsley.
``Out of four ounces you can get at least 200 joints,'' she proclaims, waving the baggie. ``That is a lot for personal use.''
Opponents of the ballot measure say recriminalizing the drug will result in valuable resources being diverted to fight something relatively benign and not overly abused, at a time when more money and manpower is needed to curb alcoholism. They say education and treatment, not the criminal justice system, is the way to fight drug abuse. Then there is the question of state intrusion.
``How far are we going to go in letting the government regulate our lives - our choices?'' asks Jamie Bollenbach, of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Both sides believe the ballot fight will be close. If it passes, the ACLU will challenge it in court. Which means Alaska's marijuana war - or war for independence, if you prefer - will not end soon.