Pot Shots


Bill Bennett is gone, but his spirit of intolerance lives on. Alaska recently recriminalized marijuana possession, and Congress has passed a law intended to ensure that other states follow suit.

Last November, Alaska voters approved an initiative that establishes a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for minor pot possession. Possession of up to four ounces of marijuana for personal consumption in the home had been legal since 1975, when the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution's privacy clause protects such pot use. That decision hinged on expert testimony that marijuana is a relatively innocuous drug.

Opponents plan to test the new law soon after it goes into effect on February 4. "The facts on marijuana have not changed in 15 years," says Glenda Straube, campaign manager of Alaskans for Privacy. The initiative, she says, succeeded because of vague, generalized fears about illegal drugs. (The measure got 55 percent of the vote—a solid victory margin, but hardly indicative of a consensus.)

Even if the initiative is overturned, the legislatures in Alaska and the 10 other states that have decriminalized minor marijuana possession will feel pressure to backpedal. Congress recently approved a bill that would withhold federal highway funds from states that fail to enact a new penalty for pot users. To keep their transportation money, states must suspend the driver's licenses of drug offenders, including those convicted of marijuana possession, for a minimum of six months.

The law—which uses the same method that forced states to raise their alcohol-purchase ages—does include an escape clause: A state legislature can explicitly vote to oppose the penalty. If the governor approves the vote, the state is exempt.

Few politicians, however, are likely to go on the record as favoring lenient treatment of drug offenders. "We are definitely going to see recrim bills in all the decrim states," says Dale Gieringer, California state coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Smoke a joint, lose your license."