Supporters of a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use in Alaska submitted 46,000 signatures to state election officials on Jan. 8 with hopes of forcing a statewide vote on the issue in August. The group needs 30,000 signatures to be certified for the measure to move forward.
The push for liberalizing marijuana laws in Alaska is part of a growing trend across the nation and much of the world.
Both Washington state and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana last year. Last month, Colorado became the first state to begin sales for recreational use.
A total of 18 other states and the District of Columbia allow some legal use of marijuana, mostly for medicinal purposes, but pro-recreational marijuana initiatives are moving forward in at least a half dozen more states.
POPE SPEAKS OUT
The general movement of increasingly liberal drug laws in countries around the world elicited comments from Pope Francis this past summer during his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day.
Since the late 2000s advocacy for legalization of drugs — including marijuana — has increased in Latin America. The Uruguayan government announced in 2012 plans to legalize state-controlled sales of marijuana. Other countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico have already advanced towards allowing personal consumption and possession of various drugs.
The pope spoke out strongly against this trend, maintaining that legalization of drugs causes existing drug problems to multiply.
“A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” Pope Francis said during his visit to Rio de Janeiro’s St. Francis of Assisi Hospital.
Speaking with addicts about the effects of “chemical dependency,” Pope Francis called drug-trafficking a “scourge” that “favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death,” reported LifeSiteNews.com.
The drug problem, he said, “requires of society as a whole an act of courage.”
Advocates for liberalizing marijuana laws in Alaska include a group called Campaign to Regulate Marijuana, which claims that liberalizing marijuana laws won’t expand marijuana use, but merely make it possible to regulate and tax it, like alcohol.
The pope’s position, however, opposes moves to legalize drugs as a way to solve social problems. Instead, Pope Francis has called for a confrontation with the fundamental problems of drug abuse and addiction, such as “educating young people in the values that build up life in society,” he said.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes no reference to particular drugs, it teaches that the use of drugs “except on strictly therapeutic grounds” is a “grave offense,” since their use “inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) located in Maryland makes the case that marijuana negatively impacts users in myriad ways.
“Research clearly demonstrates that marijuana has the potential to cause problems in daily life or make a person’s existing problems worse,” the organization states on its website.
According to the NIDA, heavy marijuana users generally report “lower life satisfaction, poorer mental and physical health, relationship problems and less academic and career success compared to their peers who came from similar backgrounds.”
Backers of the Alaska initiative say the proposed law would clarify Alaska’s current patchwork of contradictory marijuana laws.
If the measure passes, Alaskans over age 21 will be allowed to possess of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants. The measure would also allow adults to possess the marijuana produced by the plants on the premises where the plants are grown. Additionally, the measure would make manufacture, sale and possession of marijuana accessories legal.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would have regulatory oversight of the industry, which could include marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, product manufacturers and testing facilities.
Local governments would be allowed to ban marijuana establishments but they could not prohibit private possession and home cultivation.
Consumption of marijuana in public would remain illegal.
HISTORY OF MARIJUANA IN ALASKA
In 1975, the Alaska Legislature approved a bill to decriminalize private possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, replacing the possibility of time in jail with a civil fine of up to $100. Eleven days later the Alaska Supreme Court removed all penalties for privately possessing up to four ounces of marijuana and up to 24 noncommercial marijuana plants inside one’s home. The court held that the state law prohibiting possession of small amounts of marijuana violated the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution of Alaska.
In 1990, voters approved the Alaska Marijuana Criminalization Act by a margin of 54% to 46%, making possession of any amount of marijuana a criminal offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. The Alaska Court of Appeals overturned the law in 2003, noting that the ballot initiative did not change the right of privacy guaranteed by the state constitution.
In 1998, voters approved marijuana use for medical use by a margin of 59 to 41 percent.
In 2006, the Alaska Legislature passed a law to criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. There were more than 800 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2012.