In Alaska, Crisis over Marijuana Is One of Identity

A Juneau, Alaska, Superior Court judge is hearing a case this week that could block enforcement of a new law penalizing marijuana possession for personal use in the home. The new law overturns decades of uniquely liberal marijuana statues in the state, all based on strict privacy rights enshrined in the Alaskan state constitution. From the Alaska Public Radio Network, Annie Feidt reports.

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For most of the past 30 years in Alaska, it's been legal to possess up to four ounces of marijuana in your home for personal use. That was the most lenient marijuana law in the country. But last month, a new law recriminalized the drug. The ACLU has filed suit, claiming the new law is unconstitutional in Alaska. And this week, a judge in Juneau will hold a hearing on whether to block enforcement of the new measure.

Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt reports.

ANNIE FEIDT reporting:

Alaska has always had a reputation for being a bit more wild and free than the rest of the United States. That character is cemented in the state's constitution, which is one of only a handful in the country that protects the right to privacy. In 1975, the state Supreme Court interpreted that right to mean you could smoke pot in the privacy of your home.

But lawmakers in Juneau want to change that. Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli drafted the new law for the governor's office.

Mr. DEAN GUANELI (Assistant Attorney General, Alaska): I think the legislature finally got to the point of saying enough is enough, that enough new information has come to light about marijuana that it was time to act.

FEIDT: Guaneli and other supporters of the law argue today's marijuana is much more powerful and therefore more dangerous than it was in the 1970s. But for many Alaskans who oppose the new law, that argument is just the latest tactic to get around the constitution.

Bill Parker, who lobbied against the bill, believes the new legislation says more about how Alaska has changed than it does about how marijuana has changed.

Mr. BILL PARKER (Former Alaskan congressman): I think Alaska is less Alaskan every day.

FEIDT: Parker served three terms as a Democrat in the state legislature in the 1970s. He says it was depressing to watch lawmakers debate the issue this time around.

Mr. PARKER: The difference between Alaska then and now is I think there was less hypocrisy. I think because everybody was younger and maybe had less to lose, they were more likely to simply speak their mind on the subject and admit that the had tried it and that they didn't find it dangerous.

FEIDT: This isn't the first time the issue has ended up in court. In 1990, Marie Modjeski led a successful voter initiative to recriminalize the drug. On a recent morning, the 84-year-old retired school teacher searched her cluttered Anchorage home for old campaign buttons.

Ms. MARIE MODJESKI (Alaskan resident): Oh, I have buttons in here.

FEIDT: Back then, 54 percent of Alaskans voted for Modjeski's initiative. But three years later, a judge through out the new law, once again citing the Constitution's privacy protection.

Ms. MODJESKI: The privacy. Well, this is of course the excuse everybody uses. The privacy. The problem is that when you have it in the home, the children have it. And once the children have access to it, they share it with their friends.

FEIDT: Modjeski is hoping the new effort to recriminalize the drug will stick. She agrees with Bill Parker that people in Alaska have a different attitude than they did in the 1970s. But she says that's a good thing.

Ms. MODJESKI: At the time, there was this feeling that Alaska, you come to Alaska to be free to do pretty much what you want. Nobody told you what you could do, what you couldn't do. But I think people have matured. I do.

FEIDT: Advocates on both sides of the debate expect the issue to eventually end up back in the state Supreme Court for the first time since 1975.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

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