Alaska's Voters to Decide On Legalizing Marijuana

New York Times, 10 Oct. 2000

"Vote Yes Prop 5," proclaims the large yellow mural painted on the side of a building here, complete with a large cannabis leaf. A poster on the window offers a quote from Ronald Reagan, though he has certainly not endorsed this particular measure: "Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."

And just inside the door here at the headquarters of Free Hemp in Alaska are more than a dozen versions of pamphlets offering reasons for Alaskans to support the broadest marijuana legalization initiative ever to appear on a state ballot.

One pamphlet proclaims that marijuana is a far safer drug than alcohol, another says that passage of the measure would "free police resources to fight real crime."

And a third, "Marijuana and the Bible," has a drawing of Jesus Christ and observes: "Nowhere in the Bible does it forbid people to grow, use or smoke cannabis hemp."

Here, in a state that many Alaskans like to describe as the most libertarian in the nation, voters are being asked in the Nov. 7 election to say "yes" to marijuana in a single, sweeping measure that would not only legalize consumption of the drug for anyone age 18 and over but also create automatic amnesty for those convicted of marijuana-related charges and even require the state to consider restitution for such people.

Supporters of Proposition 5 are visible all over Anchorage, holding up roadside banners, handing out the leaflets, displaying stickers on their car bumpers. They gathered signatures from more than 41,000 registered voters to get the measure on the ballot, more than twice the needed number and a figure that represents nearly 10 percent of all voters in the state. And if marijuana users are derided by drug critics as laid-back and apathetic, the frenetic energy that many are bringing to the cause belies that image.

"It's a travesty that we lock people up and make criminals of them for personal use of marijuana," said James Garhart, a 51-year-old messenger who says he has used marijuana on a "semi-daily" basis for years and is now spending almost all of his free time working for the Yes-on-5 campaign.

"I think most people believe it's simply not a sane policy," Mr. Garhart said, "So I think this will pass."

Some opponents of the measure fear that the measure will pass because, they say, supporters are running a campaign that appeals to Alaskans' libertarian, leave-me-alone instincts and that often refrains from using the word "marijuana." The leading organizations for the measure have names like "Free Hemp in Alaska" and "Hemp 2000," championing a cousin of marijuana that has many industrial uses and only a tiny fraction of the drug's psychoactive properties.

"I'm concerned that the word is not getting out about what this measure would do," said Wev Shea, the United States attorney here during the Bush administration and now a lawyer in private practice, who is a leading critic of the measure. "This thing is so overbroad, unless you really take the time to look at it, you don't realize the vast scope of it."

The measure has plenty of prominent critics, including Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat who calls it "foolish and dangerous," and Chief Duane Udland of the Anchorage police, who has warned that the measure could create a "drug culture" that would attract wayward elements from all over the world.

Many state leaders remain confident that there is no way the measure will pass, with many citing the recent Alaska Poll, a periodic statewide survey conducted by David Dittman, a prominent pollster here.

Of 518 residents surveyed in the last 10 days of September, 42 percent said they were "strongly against" the measure and 19 percent "generally against," while 35 percent indicated they were supporting it.

Alaskans voted two years ago to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana, and Mr. Dittman said there might be strong support for decriminalizing the drug in some fashion because the state electorate did indeed have libertarian tendencies.

"There's certainly an element of that in the Alaskan mentality, but it does not extend to amnesty, to restitution, to the idea that marijuana would all of a sudden be legal for teenagers," Mr. Dittman said. "I think that's where they went too far."

Beginning in 1975, under a right-to-privacy ruling by the Alaska State Supreme Court, residents were allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana; in 1990, voters decided to recriminalize the drug. Still, private use of marijuana is rarely prosecuted here and, in interviews on the streets, it is clear that many Alaskans find that situation acceptable.

But that hardly means the measure will pass. For one thing, many voters seemed concerned that it would legalize the drug for people as young as 18. After all, Alaskans must be 19 to buy cigarettes and 21 to buy liquor.

Others said the amnesty was simply too broad or expressed fears, as one man put it, that passage of the measure would "attract a lot of the deadwood to move up to Alaska, get their check and get stoned." (Oil revenues enable the state to send a check from the so-called Permanent Fund to every Alaskan: this year, nearly $2,000.)

At the busy offices of Free Hemp in Alaska, workers answer phones and hand out brochures. People, some curious and some committed, wander in for information. A big sign reads: "Absolutely! No smoking anywhere, anything in the building."

Sil DeChellis, the treasurer of Free Hemp, explained that he and many other workers on the campaign detested cigarette smoke.

Next door, at the Cafe Pax, a coffee shop where painted cannabis leaves are part of the decor, the chairman of Free Hemp, Al Anders, ticked off the ways he thought life in Alaska would improve if Proposition 5 passes.

"We'll save money on law enforcement costs, and the police can fight real crime," he said.

"We'll have a stronger economy, and some increase in tourism," continued Mr. Anders, who said he did not like to smoke marijuana because it aggravated his bronchitis. ("I prefer it in my chili," he said.) And, he added: "There may be more government revenue, because people will figure out how to tax it."

By Sam Howe Verhovek

© 2000, New York Times