NEWS

Alaska among states voting on pot in marijuana midterms

10/31/2014 11:00 EDT | Updated 12/31/2014 05:59 EST
The landscape of marijuana laws in the U.S. is poised to shift on Nov. 4, mid-term election day, depending on how voters in three states and the District of Columbia mark their ballots on questions of legalization.

The marijuana midterms are in full swing, and the campaigns for and against legalization are in their final stretches. Alaska, Oregon and D.C. all have ballot measures related to legalization, while Floridians will weigh in on allowing medical marijuana. 

Colorado and Washington state were the first to allow for the legalization, regulation and sales of marijuana earlier this year. This fall, the course of marijuana laws in the U.S. could change again by expanding that list.

In Alaska, Ballot Measure 2 would allow those aged 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and have up to six marijuana plants. It would also open the door to a marijuana retail industry, allowing Alaskans to open shops to sell marijuana.

Alaska's rugged terrain has proven to be a key battleground for the debate over marijuana legalization in the U.S. The fight is made even more interesting by Alaska's long and complicated history with pot laws.

It's a history that isn't widely known in the U.S. and that likely surprises many when they learn that Alaska, known as a conservative, Republican state, was one of the first to decriminalize marijuana — all the way back in 1975.

Prohibition 'a failure'

A bill was passed imposing a $100 fine for possessing less than an ounce. Then there was a court ruling that said Alaska's constitution protects the right to privacy — which extends to possessing and growing marijuana in your home. As a result of the ruling, the fine was dropped altogether.

A series of flip-flopping laws and court decisions that followed in the years after have left confusion in their wake about what is legal and what isn't.

Now groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project are pushing for full legalization and for a retail industry in Alaska. They have been campaigning hard to get the ballot measure passed.

"We're just trying to make it so Alaska's laws are more in line with Colorado and Washington," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the D.C.-based group. The group has funded television ads, gone door-to-door, and made lots of phone calls to voters across the state.

"We're making sure that voters understand marijuana prohibition has been a failure," Fox said in an interview.

The Vote No on 2 campaign has been working equally hard to sway voters the other way, arguing that Alaska shouldn't rush to follow the example set by Colorado and Washington.

Its backers say marijuana is harmful to one's health, increases public safety concerns, and that more young people will use it. Commercializing it would "change the social norms and perceptions of our communities," and big companies would swoop in seeking to make a profit off Alaska, they argue.

They accuse the Marijuana Policy Project of using Alaska as a "pawn in their national strategy to bring Big Marijuana everywhere."

Fox rejects the notion that his group is preying upon Alaska. "Alaska was a state that was definitely in need of clarification when it comes to its marijuana laws," he said, making no apologies for the MPP helping local pro-marijuana advocates.

Will pot on ballot affect turnout?

Both sides claim the public is on their side as Nov. 4 nears. Fox said he will be watching with interest whether the voter turnout rate, traditionally lower in mid-term elections, will go up as a result of the marijuana ballot question.

Chris Arterton, a political management professor at George Washington University, explained in an interview that it tends to be Democrats who get hurt by the lower turnout in midterm elections.

Some political observers have suggested that Democrats in particular are pushing the marijuana ballot questions in an effort to draw out their supporters, including young people, who will then also mark a ballot for the Senate, governor, or other positions up for grabs.

Arterton said that tactic has been used by political parties for years.

"This has been a standard ploy in American politics since at least Karl Rove came on the scene in 2000," he said. "Putting referenda on a ballot as a way of bringing people out, and then pushing that as an incentive to get a certain segment of the public, is almost standard practice."

Arterton said his research on the issue shows Americans are increasingly in favour of medical marijuana, but legalization isn't as clear cut. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia now have laws allowing medical marijuana and Florida may or may not join that list after Nov. 4.

Millions of dollars have been spent on the campaigns in Florida, Alaska, Oregon and in D.C. Which side of the debate gets their money's worth will be proven on Nov. 4.

That day will also determine whether the U.S. continues on a path toward more liberal marijuana laws or whether Colorado and Washington will remain outliers.

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