Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics Hey, Alaska: It’s Phil Donahue. From the ’90s. I’d Like to Talk...

Hey, Alaska: It’s Phil Donahue. From the ’90s. I’d Like to Talk to You About Pot.


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In Alaska, you have a constitutional right to privacy. Congratulations!

What that actually affords you the right to do is a bit trickier. The language of Article I, Section 22 doesn’t get into specifics; it simply establishes that the “right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed,” and charges the legislature to sort out the details.

Just months after the state constitution was amended to include the right to privacy, Homer resident Irwin Ravin was pulled over and arrested for possession of two joints. That seemed like a good enough time as any to try and establish the right to use and possess marijuana under the newly enacted constitutional provision. He sued the state.

In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court held that “possession of marijuana by adults at home for personal use is constitutionally protected,” though, in writing the opinion, Justice C.J. Rabinowitz made sure to emphasize that the decision was not to be misconstrued as an endorsement of marijuana.

It is the responsibility of every individual to consider carefully the ramifications for himself and for those around him of using such substances. With the freedom which our society offers to each of us to order our lives as we see fit goes the duty to live responsibly, for our own sakes and for society’s.

So, pot’s legal, right?

No. Pot is in legal gray area land. Where it would remain for another seven years, until the legislature defined exactly how much “freedom which our society offers” should be deemed legal as four ounces. Call it a freedom cap. The court and legislature also never addressed the topic of buying and selling marijuana — so, in order for the four ounces of freedom to be legal, it presumably must fall magically from the sky and land on one’s living room floor.

Any other means of acquiring and/or using marijuana still was (and is) criminal, with incarceration ranging from 90 days (for possession of less than an ounce) to 10 years (for selling to a minor). Fines similarly range from $2,000 to $500,000.

Still, Alaskans apparently enjoyed a robust period of magically-appearing-living-room marijuana. A lot of people were smoking pot. A push for prohibition culminated in a successful ballot initiative re-criminalize pot in 1990 (the Alaska Court of Appeals later struck it down in Noy v. State).

Talk show host Phil Donahue ventured north to host a town hall type event on the topic, entitled “Donahue in the Heartland.”

Speaking to a filled Performing Arts Center crowd in Anchorage, Donahue gave his assessment of Alaska on pot:

In 1989, here are the national figures, 43 percent of high school seniors smoked pot at least once. The Alaska figures show that 68 percent of your high school seniors smoked pot at least once. You smoke more pot here, per capita, than do people in the Lower 48. National figures show that 17 percent smoked pot within the last month. The Alaska figures showed 45 percent smoked pot within the last month. Do liberal pot laws promote more pot smoking?

Donahue lined the stage with quite the five panelists. From left to right, in the video, they were former Alaska Attorney General (under Governor Wally Hickel) Edgar Paul Boyko, iconic radio show host and political commentator Herb Shaindlin, High Times Magazine editor Stephen Hager, Alaskans for Recriminalization spokesperson Marie Majewske, and former Republican state legislator Fritz Pettyjohn.

Marie Majewske poses with a bag full of marijuana.
Marie Majewske poses with a bag full of marijuana.

In the rare moments they weren’t talking over each other, the audience — packed with marijuana supporters angry over the successful initiative — was shouting over them.

Alaska is preparing to return to the ballot box this November to confront the issue once more. Looking back at “Donahue in the Heartland,”a lot of the same concerns and arguments — for and against — sound strikingly similar. The most ardent proponent of the criminalization of marijuana was Majewske. She explained that her support was out of concern for increased use among minors, referenced by in Donahue’s provided statistics.

“Hopefully, what I am hoping to achieve with this law is to begin to tell our young people this stuff is harmful, it is hurting you,” she said to audible booing from the crowd. “And we will begin, hopefully, not only to change the attitude of the children, but the attitudes of the parents.”

“You have 400,000 people that die every year from alcohol and tobacco,” Hager fired back. “No one’s ever died from smoking marijuana. Not one person. That’s a documented medical fact.”

It’s not — at least now. But there have been no documented cannibis-caused deaths in he U.S. to date. There was one fatality in England, in the past decade, which the coroner’s report attributed to marijuana use. And it should be noted that marijuana can exacerbate heart conditions, which can lead to death. This isn’t all too different, however, from tobacco, coffee, or sex. And if we choose to outlaw the last two, I’m out.

Hager’s comment wasn’t the only to fall under the “oh, look at all the cute things we thought we knew in the ’90s” category. Donahue went so far as to claim that marijuana “impairs memory, alters the sense of time, impairs concentration, affects your ability to reproduce, impairs your speech, you have lack of body coordination, and unexpected mood changes. Holy cow, and you can also get bronchitis!”

Boyko took that as the opportunity to take Donahue, his fellow panelists, and the audience to task, in a way only a character like he could have:

What you are seeing is a very good example about the irrationality that was behind this initiative. Nobody seems to want to address the issues. Everybody wants to talk about how good or bad pot is. I don’t care. I don’t want the government in my living room, in my bed room. I don’t want the cops to have the right to break down my door or my neighbor’s door because someone thinks they’re smelling pot. This is an excuse for a police state. The ‘War on Drugs’ has become a war against the Constitution and the Bill of Rights!

The Anchorage Bar Association, a group of professional lawyers, after listening to Senator Fritz Pettyjohn and others debate the issue prior to the election, voted unanimously — can you imagine a bunch of lawyers agreeing totally on something? — they voted unanimously to oppose this thing because it could lead to selective law enforcement. Not because they favored pot. I don’t favor pot. I’m against all drugs. But I think, when you pass laws of this kind, all you do is encourage people to be lawbreakers and scofflaws and have contempt for the law.

If you get a few minutes, the full episode is quite the spectacle. I encourage you to watch this unique moment of Alaska history, posted for prosperity by Youtube user backintheday2110. I compiled the different parts and did my best to clean up the audio. Enjoy.