Voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana and hemp

Posted: Wednesday, October 18, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Voters will be asked Nov. 7 to legalize marijuana and hemp products in a sweeping ballot measure that opponents fear will turn Alaska into a haven for drug dealers and potheads.

Supporters say decriminalizing marijuana will get Alaska out of a demoralizing and costly drug war that is putting basically good, law-abiding citizens in prison.

Ballot measure No. 5 would do away with civil and criminal penalties for people 18 or over who use marijuana or hemp products. Law enforcement would handle pot the way it now does alcohol. People previously convicted of marijuana crimes would be granted amnesty and an avenue would be opened to paying restitution to people fined or imprisoned for marijuana crimes.

While initiatives to allow the medicinal use of marijuana are on the ballot in Colorado and Nevada, and another measure would allow residents of Mendocino County in California to grow up to 25 plants for their own use, Alaska's measure is by far the most sweeping.

Opponents fear the measure will encourage big-time drug dealers to set up commercial growing operations in Alaska.

''They have made it so broad and so overreaching ... if this passes we are going to have a real mess on our hands,'' said Wev Shea, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska from 1990 to 1993. ''This will be the dope capital of North America.''

Supporters say the drug war in the United States already has made a mess of things.

''It's destroying this country. People are literally doing life in prison under the three strikes law for smoking pot. It's ludicrous,'' said Jolene Brown, a 33-year-old volunteer at the Anchorage campaign headquarters of Free Hemp in Alaska, one of four groups working to get the initiative passed. She said eight years of living in suburban Washington, D.C., proved to her the drug war was ill-conceived.

''The illegality of drugs does much more harm than the drugs themselves,'' she said.

Groups working to get the ballot measure passed have taken in more than $160,000 in contributions, according to campaign disclosure reports filed Oct. 9. Free Hemp of Alaska raised about $70,000, more than any other group. About $20,000 came from outside Alaska.

Vote No on 5, the only registered group fighting the measure, has taken in just $2,758, according to campaign disclosure reports.

''It's more of a smokers' rights bill,'' said Lynda Adams of Ketchikan, co-chair of the Vote No on 5 campaign.

The 56-year-old married mother of two and grandmother of four worries about the message the ballot measure sends to young people.

''Why in the world would they allow an already illegal substance for adults to be smoked by kids at 18? They won't have any punishment at all even if they give it to younger kids because they are immune from prosecution under this legislation,'' she said.

Dalane Williams, a 43-year-old Talkeetna mechanic, stopped in at Free Hemp in Alaska, with four of his boys to buy a bumper sticker and a poster. Nearly two years ago, he was arrested for possession of marijuana, jailed for seven days and sentenced to two years probation. He said he smokes marijuana to relax, but won't allow his eight children to use it until they're 18.

''It was legal once. Hey, it's our right,'' Williams said. ''I want to be able to grow a little bit and not have to pay for it.''

Besides, hemp is useful, he said. Williams said a friend boils down marijuana roots and stems and mixes them with bear fat to make a nifty balm to treat frostbite.

Kevin Kane of Anchorage, 35, who sells advertising for the Yellow Pages, said the initiative would be good for the environment. Products made from hemp could mean cutting down fewer trees. Tobacco farmers could grow hemp instead, he said.

''It's always gotten a bad rap,'' said Kane, who smokes pot occasionally.

A decade ago, Alaskans were allowed to have small amounts of marijuana under a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court ruling. In 1990, voters recriminalized pot. Two years ago Alaskans voted to legalize medical marijuana.

Libertarian Len Karpinski, who drafted Proposition 5, said he did so because taxes should not be used to fight the war on drugs. Karpinski said he does not smoke marijuana.

''My tax money is being used for this nonsense and I would like it to be stopped,'' he said.

A poll conducted by Dittman Research of Anchorage showed that 61 percent of 518 Alaskans surveyed opposed the ballot measure, 35 percent favored it and 6 percent were undecided. The poll taken between Sept. 21 and Oct. 1 has a sampling error of 4 percent.

Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin said the city council unanimously passed a resolution against the ballot measure because of the changes it would bring to the Matanuska Valley, where the majority of marijuana growers set up their operations. Pot grown in the valley also has the reputation of being stronger than marijuana grown in other areas of the United States.

''I think a lot of people think of the Mat-Su Valley as a pot haven,'' Palin said. ''This would be a major step backward in the valley.''

She said she's not buying the argument that hemp could be used to make a variety of things, including rope, clothing and paper.

''We know what the argument is,'' she said. ''These people want their pot. The hemp argument makes me laugh.''


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