Alaska voters to consider hemp legalization
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Forget the giant marijuana leaf painted outside campaign headquarters in Anchorage's eclectic Spenard district, the back issues of "High Times" in the front office and the poster on the wall of the late Jimi Hendrix puffing on a joint.
The ballot question on legalizing hemp and marijuana in Alaska, contrary to critics' claims, is not about giving potheads free license to get stoned -- or so says a leader in the campaign to pass the initiative.
"It's a civil liberties issue. If someone wants to grow a crop in their garden that's no more harmful than dandelions they should be allowed to," Al Anders, chairman of Free Hemp in Alaska, the most prominent of the four groups campaigning for the measure, said in a radio debate.
Until voters recriminalized it in 1990, possession of up to four ounces for personal use was legal in Alaska, notwithstanding the federal government's disapproval. Now the state should reclaim that live-and-let-live heritage, Anders said from campaign headquarters in a shabby mini-mall across a parking lot from one of Alaska's busiest and rowdiest bars.
"It's a states-rights issue," said Anders, a Libertarian Party activist. "It's a right to privacy and the right to privacy is not being respected by the federal government."
Among other provisions, the measure would grant immunity to people convicted in the past of marijuana offenses -- "Prisoners of War," in the words of Free Hemp in Alaska's campaign literature -- or victims of the federal war on drugs.
Others working for the measure say the cannabis plant has been unfairly vilified and Alaskans should be free to grow it and explore its beneficial uses as people do in 22 countries.
"There's 50,000 uses and everyone tries to focus on only one of them," said Wanda Carp, treasurer of Hemp 2000, another advocacy group campaigning for legalization.
At her downtown Anchorage office, she displays a sample of hemp insulation, rubbing it on her face to show that it is non-irritating, and photographs of a house built from hemp in South Dakota. The office also has a tiny shop selling items such as hemp-seed candies and hemp oil, lip balm and clothing.
Carp believes hemp could be a successful crop in the small farmbelt of Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage, where her family homesteaded. The hemp seed, she said, is a marvelous protein source that can aid victims of tuberculosis, a disease that lingers in parts of rural Alaska.
Unfortunately, she said, "You can't grow a stick out of the ground without getting a leaf on it," and the leaf is what upsets law-enforcement officials.
The Alaska marijuana debate has long been intertwined with the state constitution's protection for privacy and with residents' self-image as rugged individualists. Thanks to a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling, possession and use of up to four ounces of marijuana in the privacy of one's home was legal here for several years. The court said individual rights outweighed any state interest in banning marijuana use.
"Our territory and now state has traditionally been the home of people who prize their individuality and who have chosen to settle or to continue living here in order to achieve a measure of control over their own lifestyles which is now virtually unattainable in many of our sister states," said the now-famous court ruling.
The 1990 ballot initiative that recriminalized marijuana passed 54 percent to 46 percent. Despite the vote, illegal marijuana crops continued to flourish in home greenhouses, especially in the anti-establishment hotbeds of the Matanuska-Susitna and Fairbanks areas.
Attitudes about marijuana have softened In the past decade, said Anchorage-based pollster and political consultant Ivan Moore. Evidence of that, he said, is the passage of a 1998 ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana use.
But the sweeping nature of this year's hemp initiative, which was placed on the ballot by citizen petition, has drawn a wide array of opponents. It would turn Alaska into "Dope, U.S.A.," said the arch-conservative Voice of the Times, the editorial remnant of the defunct Anchorage Times that still runs in the Anchorage Daily News.
"Unfortunately, were it to pass, Alaska would become heaven on Earth for dopers who would flock here from all over," the column editorialized.
Wev Shea, a Republican activist, Anchorage attorney and former federal prosecutor, says legalization in Alaska could harm joint law enforcement efforts with the federal government. He is skeptical of claims about hemp's benefits.
"This is not about hemp. There is not a hemp-garment industry that's going to be coming into play in Alaska, nor is there going to be any large hemp crop in Alaska," he said in the radio debate with Anders. Also against it is Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, although he opposed the 1990 recriminalization measure as heavy-handed. He considers the initiative to be full of flaws, starting with the amnesty provision, said press secretary Bob King.
"There's a lot in this initiative that people aren't aware of," King said. Moore said he is unsure how the hemp measure will fare in next month's voting, in part because it is overshadowed by a louder debate over a more significant issue, a proposed statewide property tax cap. He said there are some good arguments in favor of broader legalization "It's a natural substance. It has therapeutic qualities. And it doesn't kill you, like alcohol and tobacco."
But it is probably a mistake for proponents to aim their campaign at the "drug culture," he said, "although there's certainly a slice of the population that will respond to that."
Anders makes no apologies for his group's approach. "The nice thing is everybody in Alaska knows somebody who smokes pot," he said. "Would they turn their friends in if the issue fails? If the answer is no, then they really should vote yes."
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