Supporters say polls show numbers exist to make marijuana legal

Pot initiative picking up momentum

Posted: Monday, September 25, 2000

Supporters of a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana say they'll make worldwide news on election day in November.

A leading opponent of state Ballot Measure No. 5 concedes it could happen.

Mitch Mitchell and Lincoln Swan of Anchorage, full-time volunteers with the ballot group Free Hemp in Alaska, were in Juneau for several days recently to organize a get-out-the-vote effort. Juneau led the state in 1998 with 62 percent support for the successful medical marijuana initiative, making turnout here key to winning in the Nov. 7 statewide election, they said.

There are four ballot groups supporting the initiative and one opposing it. Free Hemp is unabashedly outspoken about having the right to enjoy marijuana, while another group that's in favor emphasizes the potential commercial and industrial uses of hemp.

Free Hemp has commissioned three opinion polls on the ballot issue and conducted one itself, Mitchell said Monday.

"We're not pushing the actual percentages, except to say we win. ... We are making history. We are going to legalize marijuana in Alaska."

Then the battle will be taken to other states, including opposition to the U.S. role in fighting drugs in South America, he said.

Wev Shea, a former U.S. Attorney for Alaska and activist Republican who unsuccessfully opposed the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, said he has heard that Free Hemp's polling data shows a dead heat statewide.

However, Shea, an Anchorage attorney who is a leader of Health Not Hemp/No on 5, acknowledged the ballot measure could win a majority.

"I think that unless the citizens of the state of Alaska become educated, yeah, I think there's a shot this thing is going to pass."

The two sides agree Ballot Measure 5 would make Alaska unlike any other state in the union.

"It certainly is the broadest initiative related to drug legalization in a state -- ever," Shea said.

The initiative would bar prosecuting or suing any adult for possessing, growing, distributing or consuming "hemp products for personal use in private," as well as for industrial, medicinal and nutritional uses.

"Hemp intoxicating products shall be regulated in a similar manner to alcoholic beverages," the initiative states. Public safety provisions could be developed by the Legislature, but marijuana testing could not be required for employment or insurance.

Further, the initiative would legalize marijuana retroactively, so previous convictions would be set aside and criminal records would be destroyed.

While federal marijuana laws would remain on the books, the initiative would prevent federal officials from using state law enforcement personnel or funds to prosecute acts that would no longer be criminal under state law. State officials also would be directed to challenge conflicting federal laws and to set up a panel to consider restitution for people previously convicted of marijuana-related crimes.

Shea calls the initiative "poorly worded, rambling and grossly overbroad." He said it doesn't prevent anyone from giving marijuana to minors and might prevent police from testing for marijuana during DWI stops.

More generally, Shea said he opposes the use of marijuana because of the toll regular use takes on health and personal responsibility.

But Mitchell said it's time to end a war on drugs he called "a pathetic, disgusting failure." For example, Alaska has the highest arrest rate for marijuana in the nation -- 417 per 100,000 people -- but a recent survey showed that about a third of state high school students are using it, he said. Meanwhile, in Holland, where marijuana is legal, far fewer teens use the drug than in the United States, he said.

Alaska has a muddled history with marijuana. In the mid-1970s, the state Supreme Court recognized the personal use of marijuana as part of a constitutional right to privacy. A 1990 initiative to recriminalize the drug was approved by voters, but then voters two years ago approved medical marijuana use.

Said Swan, "We're trying to take care of the confusion."

Bill McAllister is a reporter at the Juneau Empire.

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