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Alaskans May Vote Away Right to Smoke Marijuana

October 8, 1990

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ The most liberal marijuana law in the country may go up in smoke on Election Day.

Amid rising nationwide intolerance of drugs, Alaskan voters who have been able to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for 15 years appear ready to trade in their right to puff, a poll showed.

Adults in Alaska can possess less than four ounces of marijuana legally in their homes or other private places, but an initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot would make possession of pot illegal anywhere.

If passed, the measure would make possession a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The bill is the latest and most ambitious effort to erode the gains of the marijuana-reform movement of the 1970s, when 11 states relaxed pot penalties. It has attracted strong interest and big money from outside the state.

President Bush’s drug czar William Bennett has endorsed the measure and plans to visit Alaska later in the month to campaign for it. Federal agencies have been involved, too.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI recently helped sponsor a symposium in Anchorage titled: ″Marijuana Myths and Misconceptions.″

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has made defeat of the measure a top priority. By late September, NORML had contributed nearly $16,000 to campaign efforts to defeat the measure, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

″Not defeating this initiative means that we will be facing trouble in dozens of other states in 1992,″ NORML director Donald B. Fiedler said in a recent fund-raising letter. ″We must preserve the status quo in Alaska.″

High Times, a New York-based magazine that advocates legalizing marijuana, is urging readers to travel to Alaska this month to counter Bennett and defeat the measure.

The magazine calls the initiative ″the year’s gravest challenge to the marijuana-legalization movement.″

″Don’t risk bringing pot, we have the best up here,″ its October issue advises.

A statewide survey in August showed voters supported the measure by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman said. Opponents say they’ll gain ground in the next few weeks when their campaign goes into full swing.

There have been repeated efforts to toughen laws in most of the 11 states that decriminalized marijuana in the ’70s.

Lawmakers in Oregon, the first state to decriminalized possession of small amounts in 1973, raised the $100 maximum fine for possession to $1,000 last year, with a $500 minimum.

Legislative attempts to restore criminal penalties in Alaska stalled in the Democratic-controlled House. Frustration over lawmakers’ resistance prompted a grassroots effort to take the issue to voters.

Alaskans for the Recriminalization of Marijuana gathered more than 40,000 petition signatures - twice the number needed - to get the measure on the ballot.

The issue may also figure in the tight, three-way governor’s race.

Democrat Tony Knowles, who has admitted smoking marijuana in the early 1970s, said he favors restoring criminal penalties but opposes sending first- time offenders to jail.

He faces Republican Arliss Sturgulewski and Walter Hickel of the Alaskan Independence Party in the general election. Both have endorsed the anti- marijuana measure.

If the measure passes, the change will be largely symbolic. Police say catching adults using pot in their homes would be a low priority.

State law bans possession of marijuana in public, as well as cultivation, transport and sale. Possession by juveniles also is illegal.

Nevertheless, proponents say the measure is needed to send a clear message to Alaska’s youth about the perils of drug abuse.

″The whole point is that our young people truly understand that this is an illicit drug throughout the United States,″ said Marie Majewske, chairwoman of Alaskans for the Recriminalization of Marijuana. ″It doesn’t change when it hits Alaska.″

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