Legal marijuana: how Alaska's new measure compares with other states' laws

Unlike the other states where marijuana legalization has taken effect, Alaska is a solid Republican state – a sign that different constituencies are supporting such measures. Alaska is also known for a strong libertarian streak.

Michael Dinneen/AP
From left, Coalition for Reseponsible Cannabis Legislation spokesman Bruce Shulte and initiative co-sponsor Dr. Tim Hinterberger discuss the legalization of marijuana as the new law took effect in Alaska Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. The pair held a news conference in Anchorage noting among other items, that the neither had heard of any rallies or arrests in the new law's first hours.

On Tuesday, Alaska became the third state to legalize recreational marijuana, as the ballot initiative that voters approved in November took effect.

Unlike the other states where legalization has taken effect, Alaska is a solid Republican state – a sign that different constituencies are supporting such measures. Voters in Alaska, which is also known for a strong libertarian streak, passed the initiative in an off-year election where preelection polls on the issue were all over the place. Even some advocates, in fact, were pessimistic about its success.

In the end, the measure passed with just over 53 percent of the vote.

"Support for ending marijuana prohibition spans the political and ideological spectrums," says Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has played a leading role in supporting marijuana legalization in a number of states. "Some people support making marijuana legal because it’s a matter of ending a failed government program; others support it because they believe it’s a civil rights issue in which communities of color are being disproportionately impacted."

Mr. Tvert adds, "Reasons vary, but it's one of the few issues where we see very conservative people and very progressive people in agreement, and we expect to see more red states passing similar laws in the future."

In Oregon, which passed a ballot initiative similar to Alaska's at the same time, legalization will take effect over the summer. And the District of Columbia is set to make it legal to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana starting Thursday at midnight.

In all these places, it will take somewhat longer for a regulatory structure to be in place and for stores to sell recreational marijuana (and in the District, the future of such sales is murky, since the city is currently barred by an act of Congress from spending funds to enact the law and thus hasn't been able to establish any sort of regulation).

Alaska's new law is similar in many ways to the laws already in effect in Washington State and Colorado, though it also has some distinctive elements. Like Washington (and Oregon once the law there takes effect), the marijuana industry will be overseen by the state liquor control board (in Colorado, it's under the Department of Revenue). As in Colorado, limited amounts of "home grows" will be allowed – up to six plants per household.

Also, local municipalities can decide to ban marijuana sales in their town. Wasilla – perhaps best known as the town where Sarah Palin was once mayor – has already passed a measure prohibiting residents from making marijuana "edibles" or concentrates.

Perhaps the most notable difference in Alaska has to do with the tax structure. Unlike Colorado and Washington, both of which tax a percentage of sales – Colorado through an excise tax and sales tax and Washington through three excise taxes at various points in production – Alaska will have a flat tax of $50 per ounce. Once Oregon's law takes effect, it will also tax by the ounce.

"The case can be made that the flat amount per ounce would be better because it wouldn’t change as the price of marijuana changes," Tvert says. "Different states are going to take different approaches to regulating marijuana, much like they take different approaches to regulating alcohol."

States like Alaska and Oregon have been learning from the experiences in Colorado and Washington as they craft their laws, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has also had a leading role in many of the legalization initiatives.

"I would refer to Oregon as the gold standard," says Mr. Nadelmann, adding that some consider Washington's law, in particular, a bit too restrictive. "Alaska is a relatively good law."

It's notable, he says, that while many of Alaska's Native communities officially opposed legalization, the initiative ended up winning a majority of the Alaska Native vote. "That was really significant, because it showed that the generational divide extends even to Native communities, and maybe even more excessively there," Nadelmann says.

Alaska was in fact one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana possession, back in 1975. But that law was challenged, and things have been uncertain for the past couple of decades.

As of Tuesday, it's now legal for Alaskans to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in public (though not to consume it in public), to grow up to six plants, and to gift it (but not sell it) to each other. The state now has nine months to draft rules for regulating retail sales, and it will start accepting applications for business licenses a year from now.

While Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon are already taking action, advocates of legalization say that the really big year for them will be 2016, when at least five states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – are likely to have legalization on their ballots. A number of other states, including Maryland, Rhode Island, and Vermont, may legalize it in their legislatures.

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