Soldotna trial lawyer Eric Derleth has been writing articles in favor of marijuana legalization since he was 16. He makes no apologies about being a cannabis user and will readily debate the benefits of marijuana when compared to other legal vices, like alcohol and tobacco.
“I think it’s clear (marijuana) is not terribly dangerous,” he said. “We have things that are legal that are extremely dangerous. Medical research shows alcohol is far and away the most dangerous drug, well above tobacco and heroin. It’s like looking at Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record so far above everyone else.”
Alaskan supporters of the legalization of marijuana turned in more than 46,000 signatures to the state election office on Jan. 8 aiming to get the measure put on the Aug. 19 ballot. If approved, the initiative would provide the state authority to tax and regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana making it the third state to do so, behind Washington and Colorado.
Under the proposed measure, cannabis use would be legal for adults 21 years old or older, allowing personal use possession of one ounce or less and no more than six marijuana plants, according to the proposed bill submitted to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and the Alaska Department of Law.
One of the co-sponsors of the initiative is Tim Hinterberger, a professor from the University of Alaska-Anchorage. The Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C. nonprofit policy reform group, is financing the coalition.
Last August, Hinterberger spoke with Derleth on Sound-Off, a Kenai-area radio show, to provide the community information on the marijuana initiative. The owner of the Lucky Raven Tobacco Shop in Soldotna met with Hinterberger to see how the initiative could spur business.
Soldotna native Gabriel VanZee, who works at Lucky Raven Tobacco, met Hinterberger and soon after volunteered to gather signatures for the petition.
In three months, he and some of his co-workers traveled the Kenai Peninsula from Kenai to Homer and collected more than a thousand signatures.
“Probably the easiest part of the job was getting people to sign,” VanZee said. “I had a 90 percent success rate. I would get cut off mid-sentence and start signing. Alaska is ready for legalization.”
Derleth, who has practiced law since 1995, said this is the third state ballot initiative attempt to legalize marijuana. The first two, in 2000 and 2004, did not get more than 44 percent of votes and failed. He said this one is more thought-out with provisions similar to Colorado’s regulation laws.
Marijuana would be sold in a state-run store similar to how liquor is controlled for a year before dispensaries could open. Dispensaries would not be allowed near schools and sellers must ID customers, he said.
VanZee, 25, said one of the reasons he supports this bill is because it is open-ended, giving each local government the option to prohibit or allow for the sale of marijuana.
“Let’s say Soldotna doesn’t want anything to do with it. They can impose a dry county like what some Lower 48 states do with alcohol,” he said. “Or they can fully support it, collect tax money and make a profit. Any new revenue for the state is a good thing. It’s turn-key ready to make money, the business is already being done.”
VanZee said he thinks some of the biggest opposi
tion to legalization would be from pot dealers themselves, because they would lose the underground business.
Another concern is the rising cost of legalized pot, he said. If you put cannabis into the capitalist machine, it is going to drive the prices down, he said.
VanZee said the going street rate for an ounce is $320. The base cost in the states is $80 an ounce, but when you tack on the $50 tax, that would increase the price to $130, which is half the current street price, he said.
“I’m sure if it becomes legalized there will be plenty of gouging prices with people stuffing their pockets,” he said. “Over time prices would come down.”
Derleth said the two main points in opposition of legalizing marijuana are workplace and road safety.
While valid arguments, he said there is no way for a police officer to know if a driver is high because even with a blood test, no set level, like .08 for blood alcohol levels, has been set to be considered unsafe. Drunk-driving related fatalities are still the biggest concern plaguing our nation, he said.
The proposed bill does not change the medical marijuana law, which was approved in 1998, and federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a “Schedule 1” illegal drug, on the same spectrum as heroin and cocaine, he said.
Derleth said he sees firsthand how the justice system is flawed with arrests on drug possession that flood prisons nationwide. Since 1980, the prison population has increased eight-fold with 80 percent involving drug convictions, he said.
“A lot of victimless crimes, we don’t need people locked away as long,” he said. “If we let them all out we have lots of room for people who need to be isolated away because there are people that don’t play well with others.”
Derleth said one in 10 of his clients’ cases are marijuana related with most growing or selling and nothing else criminal.
“Go to the courtroom any given day and see who they chain together and drag in. At least half are alcohol related cases,” he said. “If we switch all those people with cannabis then we would be doing ourselves a huge benefit.”
Alaska was the first state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana intended for personal use. In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in Ravin v. State that small amounts of pot could be consumed in the privacy of a home.
Derleth said he was arrested for having marijuana in his pocket when he was 18. He pleaded out to shoplifting theft and told the judge he deserved to be punished. The judge dismissed the pot charge.
“If I had a drug record it would have been impossible for me to get a bar license or go to law school,” he said. “It would have ruined my life had I not been a middle class white kid.”
While keeping marijuana out of the hands of teenagers should be a priority, Kenai business owner Amy Jackman said if adults want to consume the natural plant it should be their right.
Jackman, owner of C Cups Specialty Coffee in Kenai, said she believes marijuana has not been legalized nationwide because all of its medical uses compete with big pharmaceutical business.
“Why would anyone want to keep something so good and at the same time throw alcohol down our throats?” she said. “I think it’s time everyone educates themselves to the wonderful benefits.”
Studies have proven that cannabis has been used to treat diabetes, ADHD and cancer, she said.
Jackman said she met three women all over the age of 50 who came into her business and signed the petition, not because they like to get high but because one was terminally ill.
“They wanted to do anything they could because marijuana treatment was so effective,” she said. “I think we need to open ourselves up a little bit.”
Meanwhile with alcohol we have more fatalities, physical and sexual abuse and violent outbursts, she said.
“Why is it as society we blindly accept what the government tells us what is right and wrong,” Jackman said.
Jackman, who has lived in Alaska for 22 years, said it is time for the state to give the people what they want. If the state legalizes pot the revenue generated could go right back into funding education and more than make up any budget shortfall, she said.
“We consider ourselves to be pioneers,” Jackman said. “Why don’t we as Alaskans be pro-active and take care of ourselves?”
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com.