Pot Paths


Two pioneers of marijuana decriminalization, Alaska and Oregon, will head in opposite directions if initiatives on their November ballots are successful.

In Alaska, where possession of up to four ounces of marijuana for personal use in the home has been legal since 1975, the Citizens' Coalition for the Recriminalization of Marijuana has proposed an initiative that would impose a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for possession of small amounts. In Oregon, where possession of less than an ounce of pot became merely a "citable offense" in 1972, a proposed initiative would allow residents to possess up to four ounces and grow up to three plants each year.

The Alaska initiative is a response to the frustration of antimarijuana activists who have been trying to get the state legislature to recriminalize the drug for the past several years. Last year, recriminalization was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate but died in the Democrat-controlled House.

Now two sponsors of the failed legislation, state Reps. Terry Martin and Alyce Handley, both Anchorage Republicans, are pushing the initiative. It has already collected 40,950 signatures, twice the number needed to put it on the ballot.

The conservative Anchorage Times has taken a strong stand in favor of recriminalization. The liberal (and larger) Anchorage Daily News has declared that the voters should be allowed to decide the issue. Opposition to the initiative is vocal but so far disorganized.

Should voters approve the law, however, it will face another obstacle: Ravin v. State, a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court ruling that private marijuana use is protected by the state constitution's privacy clause. "If it does pass, it's going to be challenged immediately, and it'll be thrown out," says Robert Wagstaff, the Anchorage attorney who argued the Ravin case.

Marie Majewske, chairperson of the coalition backing the initiative, says the dramatic increase in the average THC content of marijuana and recent studies on the effects of the drug should lead the Supreme Court to reconsider Ravin. The ruling was based largely on expert testimony that marijuana is a relatively innocuous drug.

Meanwhile, as of late January, the Oregon Marijuana Initiative had yet to collect the 63,578 valid signatures needed to get its proposal on the ballot. Laurel Beau, a spokesperson for the 3,500-member political action committee, says the group has collected more than 25,000 signatures and expects to have 85,000 to 100,000 by the July 6 deadline.

The OMI, which has been working to liberalize Oregon's marijuana laws for a decade, has responded to past failures by modifying its approach. An initiative that would have legalized possession of any amount of pot for personal use by residents over 18 was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin in 1986. This year's initiative would allow residents over 21 to purchase marijuana-growing certificates for $50 a year. The money would be used to pay for drug treatment programs.

"It's a compromise," Beau says. "We're trying to appeal to the broadest spectrum of voters.…The atmosphere is really not conducive to changing the laws, except to make them tougher." Last summer, the Oregon legislature increased the penalty for marijuana possession, previously $100 at most, to $500 to $1,000.

Beau admits the initiative has attracted sharp criticism from past OMI supporters who object to the government role in licensing growers. But he stresses that the law would forbid the state from keeping a list of permit holders. And he suggests that even those who refuse publicly to support the measure will vote for it once it appears on the ballot—and line up for permits if the initiative passes.