When the Alaska state legislature stumbled past the midnight deadline (on 4/20, ironically), the highly anticipated ballot initiative to legalize marijuana was automatically punted from the August primary to the November general election. In the time since, incumbents and candidates of both parties have come out in opposition to the measure — a strange departure from the standard of political campaigns trying to hitch a ride on any populist bandwagons taking on passengers.
A Public Policy Polling report from February of this year showed Alaskans support the concept by large numbers; 55 percent in favored legalizing recreational marijuana compared to just 39 percent opposed. Another poll, commissioned each year by the GOP-led House Majority Caucus to gauge their constituents, found a slimmer 52-44 split. Republican voters oppose the initiative, 57 to 39. The more conservative the voter, the more opposed they trend.
So, it makes some sense that the Alaska Republican Party voted at their convention, last month, to oppose the initiative.
The same poll found that Democratic voters support the proposal, 64-34. Much the mirror image of their ideological counterparts, the more liberal the voter, the more supportive of legalization. But even self described “moderates” favor legalization 61-35. 62 percent of voters under 30, who are more likely to vote Democratic (by a 13 point advantage, using national data) — but have a shoddy attendance record outside of presidential election years — also support the measure.
Despite these numbers, which many could recognize as low hanging fruit during midterm elections that traditionally skew conservative, Democrats are not jumping to lend their endorsements.
Senator Mark Begich has chosen to refrain from taking a position on any of November’s initiatives, which also include raising the minimum wage and protecting Bristol Bay salmon runs. Both lieutenant governor candidates on the Democratic ticket, State Senator Hollis French and Bob Williams, told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce last week that they opposed the measure (GOP contenders, State Senator Lesil McGuire and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan also said they were voting no). Byron Mallott said the same a week earlier, as did Gov. Parnell and Republican Bill Walker, who is running as an independent.
The Democratic Party, despite taking stances on both other initiatives and essentially hinging their entire campaign strategy on the oil tax repeal, is uncharacteristically silent on marijuana. The former executive director of the party, Deborah Williams, is serving as the treasurer for the “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No On 2” campaign opposing the initiative. “This initiative, as written, has a lot of extreme measures that are very costly and raise many questions and concerns,” Williams told Alaska Dispatch’s Suzanna Caldwell last month.
It’s not too often that a notable majority of voters is met by a near universal opposition to whatever it is those voters are supporting. However, that seems to be the norm this year. The U.S. House race — between heavy favorite and long time incumbent (seeking his 21st term) Representative Don Young and Democratic challenger, Forrest Dunbar — is a fascinating outlier.
Young’s office didn’t respond to inquiry [Editor’s note: that’s likely my fault; I sent the request to a faulty email. I’m currently working with Young’s staffer, Matt Shuckerow, to remedy the mistake and will implement any impending comments.], but he’s made his support of the initiative known, albeit vague. “Young said as a state’s rightist, it is up to the Alaskan voters to decide whether or not to legalize marijuana,” Kaylee Osowski reported, after Young fielded a question about the initiative during a Kenai and Soldotna joint chamber luncheon last year.
The Congressman for All of Alaska also cosponsored H.R. 1523, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher’s (R-CA) national legislation aimed at preventing the federal government from prosecuting residents acting in accordance with their state’s marijuana laws.
“It’s a good bill, and it’s something I support,” Forrest Dunbar told me, referring to H.R. 1523. “It’s not something he’s taken any action on. He put it out there symbolically… but, like many bills, he doesn’t do any follow through.”
I caught up with Dunbar last week to try and figure out why he was the only Democratic candidate vocalizing support for the initiative. “I think other people will come out… in favor of it,” he told me. “By and large, Alaskan people are independent people that like to be left alone. And this is one of the quintessential ways in which the government interferes with our personal lives, our public lives, and just our lives in general, is the war on drugs.”
Dunbar said that a lot of misinformation about the initiative, and marijuana in general, was confusing a lot of people. He said that Republicans, especially, should embrace their libertarian wing; a constituency that he says supports decriminalization.
Earlier in this year’s legislative session, State Senator Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla) cited Alaska’s libertarian streak to denounce the initiative as unnecessary. He said — wrongly — that marijuana was already legal: “you can have it, you can use it in your own house and all those sorts of things.” Huggins said that all the initiative would do is (again, this is factually not true) invite federal taxation, doubling the price.
“So, Representative Charlie Huggins came out for low marijuana prices? That’s his position?” Dunbar smiled. “Well, I find that very puzzling.”
Dunbar noted correctly that Alaskans do, empirically, smoke more pot than the average American. By a lot. In a list of the top 17 “stoner states,” compiled by CBS News, Alaska ranked number one. Over 16 percent of Alaskans admitted to marijuana use in the past year. That marijuana use is currently facilitated by the black market, where is it not regulated and where the state sees no revenue from sales — revenue that Dunbar said should be going to drug recovery programs, law enforcement, and schools. He said he’d prefer the state have a role in making sure that the weed on the streets isn’t “poison,” or laced with more dangerous substances like PCP and arsenic.
An end to prohibition through regulation and taxation. So, why the Democratic hesitance? Dunbar said it wasn’t as much a political divide as it was a generational one. Many older Democrats still hold views regarding marijuana that are based on outdated science; a “Reefer Madness” propaganda hangover. “Marijuana is not as addictive as alcohol, far less harmful to your health, long term, as alcohol, not a gateway drug — there’s just a mountain of statistical evidence today that [indicates] all those stereotypes aren’t true.”
The Alaska Democratic Convention will convene on Thursday in Nome, and Dunbar isn’t sure if the party, as a whole, will take an official position. If it came up, he said he would speak in support, but didn’t think a party stance was needed. “The vast majority of Alaskans are independent. They don’t particularly care what either party says on these kinds of issues. They understand that this is a civil rights issue, a personal freedom issue, a tax revenue issue; they understand that isn’t a partisan issue.”
Dunbar said he supported the initiative as an Alaskan, and emphasized his belief that the move would secure local control while creating more revenue for a state currently submerged in deficit spending. Localities that wished to keep marijuana illegal could still do so under the proposal. Keeping that autonomy while providing new ways to fund law public safety was the right thing to do, he said.
“I can’t speak to every state house or state senate candidate,” he told me. “I hope some of them start to take more public stands on it, because I think that it’s an important issue [that’s] going to reverberate in the state.”