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Drug has odd Alaska history

POT: Drug see-saws between legal and illegal in state

October 15, 2003
Mike Chambers
The Associated Press

Wev Shea has been fighting Alaska's marijuana laws for more than two decades. And what a long strained trip it's been.

As a U.S. attorney in Alaska a decade ago, Shea took a tough stand against illegal drugs and was often criticized for it.

In 1990, he backed the initiative that criminalized pot in the state. In 1998, he unsuccessfully fought a voter initiative for medical marijuana. And in 2000, he helped defeat what he called a "bizarre" attempt to legalize marijuana and consider reparations for some drug convicts.

"There's a lot of people that still think smoking dope is just as fine as having a glass of wine or a beer," said Shea, 59, of Anchorage. "The general consensus is it really doesn't affect us, and we are free thinkers."

Like voters in several states, Alaskans may soon be asked to rethink some of the tough anti-drug policies adopted during the Reagan era of "Just Say No."

Shea, now a lawyer in private practice active with the Institute on Global Drug Policy, said he will take up the fight again as pot makes another appearance in state politics.

In August, a state Court of Appeals decision made it legal for Alaskans to possess four ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use.

Then, an Anchorage Superior Court judge gave pro-pot forces a second chance to try to put their legalization initiative on next year's ballot.

Alaskans have had a long history of winking at drug prohibition efforts, even before a 1975 state Supreme Court decision first made it legal to possess small quantities of marijuana in the home.

Fifteen years later, voters decided to make marijuana possession a crime -- a law that held until August, when the state Court of Appeals reaffirmed the landmark 1975 Ravin decision.

The appeals court ruling reversed the drug conviction of a North Pole man and at the same time derailed the 1990 initiative that had allowed his arrest.

Attorney General Gregg Renkes, appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, grudgingly agreed to abide by the decision but directed police to confiscate pot for possible federal prosecution.

He has asked the U.S. attorney's office for help, because having any amount of marijuana is a federal crime. It remains unclear if federal prosecutors will take up the slack in Alaska's drug laws.

Meanwhile, Renkes is also seeking a rehearing of the August ruling.

The appeals court decision of this minor drug charge turned on broad right-to-privacy protections added to the Alaska Constitution by voters in 1972. That constitutional amendment inadvertently led to the state Supreme Court opinion three years later legalizing some in-home marijuana use.

The case centered on Irwin Ravin, an Anchorage lawyer stopped by police for a taillight violation. His car was searched -- and pot was found -- after he refused to sign the citation.

In an appeal to the state Supreme Court, Ravin argued right-to-privacy protections. The Supreme Court reversed Ravin's marijuana conviction and sent it back to a lower court.

Alaskans' right to be left alone in their homes was more important than the state's obligation to police small amounts of pot, the court ruled.

Once renowned for its independent bent, Alaska in recent years has become increasingly conservative. But its attitude toward marijuana is gauged every couple of years by voters, who said yes to medical marijuana eight years after criminalizing pot.

Next year, Alaskans may again be asked to legalize pot.

Shortly after the August appeals court decision, Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock ordered Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, a conservative Republican and longtime marijuana foe, to reconsider a legalization group's efforts to put a marijuana initiative on the November 2004 ballot.

The Division of Elections, under Leman, had disallowed nearly 200 petition booklets on mostly technical grounds. Initiative backers were about 7,000 signatures short until Suddock ordered the state to count again.

Voters in Seattle enacted Initiative 75 in September, directing law enforcement to make marijuana-use offenses their lowest priority.

And 17 states have approved drug-reform initiatives, often to allow marijuana use for medical purposes, provide treatment rather than incarceration or ease asset seizure laws, according to a study by the Drug Policy Alliance.

On the other hand, voters in Nevada, Arizona and South Dakota last year spurned efforts to either legalize or lessen penalties for marijuana and hemp.

Alaska is among nine states that have laws legalizing marijuana for people with physician recommendations or prescriptions.

In Alaska, there are 220 people on the state's medical marijuana registry, which gives them the right to purchase prescribed marijuana, according to the Division of Public Health's Vital Statistics office.

Jim Welch, a former sled dog racer from Eagle River, is one of them. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 17 years ago and now in a wheelchair, the 53-year-old Welch finds pot lessens the tremors and spasms he frequently experiences.

It isn't a cure, and he uses it only a few times a month, he said. But it helps.

"I just think marijuana is such a benign substance. The real crime is so many people have been put in jail," Welch said.

Welch supports any move to decriminalize marijuana, though he's not willing to venture a guess about its fate here.

"I don't think it will result in much change, and the only positive change would be to relieve local police and troopers of a burden they're already not dealing with," Welch said.

Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press