With an initiative on legalizing recreational marijuana set to go before Alaska voters in August's primary ballot, authorities on both side of the issue gathered in Anchorage Wednesday to debate whether the measure should pass.
A panel of both Alaskans and experts from the Lower 48 gathered at the University of Alaska Anchorage for a panel discussion on marijuana law and policy. One of them was Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that has spearheaded drug policy reform efforts nationwide.
"The policy of prohibition hasn't worked very well: it's been ineffective, it's been costly and it's been counterproductive," said Nadelmann.
Supporters of marijuana legalization say it is time to bring the drug out of the shadows, eliminate a dangerous and illegal drug market, and regulate marijuana in a way in which Alaskans can benefit.
"It has cost tens of billions of dollars to enforce these prohibitions," Nadelmann said. "We've lost the opportunity to raise billions of dollars in tax revenue and it's really, I think, distorted the police from focusing on real crime."
If passed, the initiative drafted by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, would allow adults over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants, with up to three flowering. The law would also allow the legal manufacture, sale and possession of marijuana accessories, and it would create a market for marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities and product manufacturers.
Under the initiative, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would be granted initial oversight, but the Legislature would have the authority to create a Marijuana Control Board at any time.
"If you were to regulate it like alcohol in Alaska, my question to Alaskans would be, 'How's that working out for you right now?'" said Ben Cort, a board member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Colorado group against legalization.
He points to the "big marijuana" industry in Colorado that is rapidly flourishing. Marijuana and infused products are marketed by using cartoons which target a younger audience, and sex appeal to attract customers, said Cort. He believes the issue that faces Alaskans is not about legalization, but industrialization.
"In Colorado, we thought we were simply voting to legalize weed. What we have now is a multi-billion dollar industry that's bent on increasing profits, and they increase profits by creating new users and getting current users to use more frequently," Cort said.
Opponents of legalizing weed worry that it would only boost the underground drug market since that is where users can buy pot, tax-free. There are also concerns about the potential of increased youth drug use.
"Young people already have incredible access to marijuana -- it's been true for many, many years," Nadelmann said. "So I don't think we'll see an increase in adolescent use; I think you will see an increase in older people using it."
Dean Guaneli, Alaska's former chief assistant attorney general, offers a local voice in the discussion. In his opinion, part of the reason why Outside supporters are so interested in which side of the issue Alaska falls is because they're trying to push forward a pro-legalization agenda to change federal drug laws.
"We don't have mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses," Guaneli said. "What I kind of resent is that Alaska is being used as a springboard -- Washington and Colorado first, and now Alaska -- for launching this national campaign."