The first Senate Majority press conference, last Tuesday morning, carried a much heavier tone than the optimistic State of the State address the Governor would deliver just hours later. With the state facing $2 billion in deficit spending this year, the press showed up prepared with questions prodding lawmakers about their options.
Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press led off, asking the Republican-dominant majority if Alaska’s fiscal situation had reached a point where the legislature would have to consider additional sources of revenue. Senator Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) said that wouldn’t work.
We don’t have a big enough population really to make much of a difference from the revenue that would come from [a state income tax]. There are a lot of discussions about the earnings reserved in the Permanent Fund. That always comes up in tight times. And the people have voted against that. So, we’re a little bit constrained. We have a source of revenue; it’s mostly oil. I think the next closest one is smoking, and I don’t think we want to encourage people to go out and buy cartons of Marlboros.
The option of raising the tobacco tax further remains an option. There’s still some distance before we hit the ceiling established by New York, where every pack of smokes comes with a $4.35 excise tax. But there are other options.
One is already headed to this summer’s primary ballot. Alexandra Gutierrez, from APRN, brought it up.
“So, three initiatives are expected to be on the ballot next year, and you all have the ability to preempt them through your own legislation. Is there any interest in doing that with any of the issues?”
Longtime Wasilla Republican Senator, Charlie Huggins, delivered a strange response:
One of the initiatives that’s on the ballot is marijuana. And, you know, that one really surprises me. It’s not with the merits of marijuana, but we as a state – which, is a huge libertarian population and attitude – you can have it, you can use it in your own house and all those sorts of things. And now we have Outside groups coming in, really, saying “we want to be able to grow it and sell it and, guess what? We’re going to double the price. And oh by the way it’ll be regulated” and on. And why we would do that – I’ve never used marijuana in my life, but why we would invite either the state or the federal government or whatever form it is to come in and say “We’re going tax it?” We don’t like taxes around here. We invite the tax cuts. And we’re going to invite doubling the prices and on and on and on… That just confuses me as an Alaskan.
Gutierrez quickly followed up: “Senator Kelly just said that smoking was a good source of revenue.”
The room laughed. Senator Huggins moved on. “There you go. So, um, I don’t know. Others on the initiatives?”
The comments by Huggins contradicted the legislature’s history with the state’s tobacco tax and contained multiple potentially harmful and wildly misleading falsehoods. While laws surrounding marijuana often fall into a gray area, the instances in which marijuana is illegal outweigh the instances where it is legal lopsidedly.
Legal or not: that’s still a big question.
The case for legality of marijuana rests with a single Alaska State Supreme Court decision in Ravin v. State (1975). In a unanimous, 5-0 ruling, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the consumption of marijuana, in one’s own home, under Alaska’s privacy clause (Article I, Section 22). But that consumption still comes with a caveat, as articulated in the opinion offered by Chief Justice Rabinowitz: “Where there is a significant encroachment upon personal liberty, the State may prevail only upon showing a subordinating interest which is compelling.”
More caveats and contradictions were piled on. In 1998, voters passed a ballot initiative that “removed state-level criminal penalties on [marijuana] use… by patients who possess written documentation from their physician.” But the next year, the legislature stripped protection from prosecution if the user was under 21, had ever been convicted of substance abuse in the past, and/or was not listed in the state registry. Additional legislation and a couple failed ballot initiatives inspired Governor Frank Murkowski to push HB149 through the legislature in 2006, re-criminalizing marijuana.
Today, we have contradicting rulings.
According to the State Supreme Court’s decision in Ravin, it is legal to ingest marijuana in the privacy of one’s one own, providing it appeared magically. State law concurs, so long as it is less than 4 ounces.
Outside of your house is a different story. One ounce or less is a misdemeanor with up to 90 days of jail time and a maximum fine of $2,000. One to four ounces is up to a year, with fines up to $1,000. Above four ounces nets users a felony charge, with accompanying five years jail time and maximum fine of $50,000. If you’re a seller, jail time ranges from one to ten years, with fines ranging between $1,000 and $100,000. In 2012, 869 Alaskans were arrested for possession of marijuana.
In other words, if you’re caught with a couple joints outside your house (as was Irwin Ravin in 1971), simply saying “No, officer, it’s cool – Senator Huggins said so,” won’t help.
And they would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling Outsiders.
Senator Huggins’ misguided defense of preexisting legality was confounded by his assertions about the August primary ballot initiative to decriminalize. He dismissed the initiative as an Outside effort to breach our sovereign right of getting arrested for marijuana possession, and arbitrarily forecast that costs would double. Maybe to give money to the federal government. Or something. “We don’t like tax cuts around here. We invite tax cuts.”
Well, one (me) could argue that the proclivity to arbitrarily cut taxes – say, to oil companies – has landed us in our current budgetary crisis, with our backs to an economic cliff possibly necessitating the future launch of the Make Alaska More Marlboro Act.
The initiative has three listed primary sponsors: Timothy Hinterberger, Bill Parker, and Mary Reff. Hinterberger is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Medical Education, where he came to work with the Biomedical Program and the Department of Biological Sciences in 1992. Parker is a former Alaska Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner. Reff is a retired accountant. The “Outside” influence comes by way of the Washington DC-based Marijuana Policy Project; a top contributor and the designer of the initiative’s language. It’s the same group that delivered successful initiatives in Washington and Colorado.
Here’s what the bill does:
- Codifies the findings of the Alaska Supreme Court in Ravin.
- Legalizes possession of no more than one ounce and allows Alaskans to grow up to three flowering plants for adults over 21.
- Gives oversight to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, with an option to create a new Marijuana Control Board, with a nine month window to put a functional plan in place.
- Allows for the creation of retail stores, grow facilities, and testing facilities to prevent a marijuana “moonshine” effect.
- Slaps a $50 excise tax per ounce and implements a $100 fine for public use. Revenue!
Driving under the influence remains illegal. Private sector employees can still restrict worker usage.
The irony of Huggin’s “Outsider” claims is that the only group that opposes the initiative is, well, from Outside. The national group “Smart Approaches to Marijuana” (SAM) is much more familiar to Huffington Post readers than Senator Huggins’ constituents. The strategy employed by SAM is, much like Huggins’ “It’s not with the merits of marijuana, but…” approach: much less about judging marijuana usage wholesale, instead centering around vague objections to whatever legislation is currently being proposed in a given state.
At the end of the ubiquitous electoral claims of Outside influence, the reality is that, as is generally the case, both sides are using whatever help they can from the lower 48. But the three sponsors and the accompanying 46,000 signatures turned in to get the initiative on the August ballot belong exclusively to Alaskans. And it’s Alaskans who will vote on whether or not we want to end prohibition while helping (in very small part) to pay for the cash we just rerouted to oil companies for at least the next decade.
I’d prefer siding with civil liberties that reduce public harm and decrease incarceration rates for nonviolent criminals. We could use the extra revenue (puff, click, give?). And it would be nice to be on the front lines of states fighting to end arcane prohibition policies. That cool with you, Senator Huggins?