Alaska's law on marijuana possession is considered the most liberal in the country — but its governor wants to change that, saying pot has evolved into "a dangerous drug."
Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski argues that recreational use of pot should no longer be protected by Alaskans' right to privacy. He's pressing the Legislature to restore criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
Residents are now allowed to keep up to 4 ounces in their homes.
The intent is to trigger a constitutional challenge and ultimately overturn the landmark Alaska Supreme Court decision that legalized the use of small amounts of marijuana. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is poised to mount such a challenge should the law be enacted.
The state's highest court concluded in 1975 that Alaskans' constitutional right to privacy outweighed any harm that might occur from using a small amount of marijuana in the home. State legislators set that amount at 4 ounces in 1982.
Although 11 other states have "decriminalized" small amounts of marijuana for personal use, they generally set the limit at a single ounce and most levy a fine for possession, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Alaska's marijuana laws are "bar none" the most liberal in the country, he said.
Federal law prohibits any use of marijuana, but 11 states including Alaska allow it to be used for medicinal purposes.
Murkowski's marijuana bill is wrapped into legislation that seeks to curb the manufacture of methamphetamine and now awaits action in a legislative committee.
House Majority Leader John Coghill, a Republican, said the marriage of the two bills has caused some resentment within his caucus, especially among members who do not support the marijuana measure. Yet he believes the bill will pass.
If it does, Alaska would make pot possession of 4 ounces or more a felony. Possession of less than 4 ounces but more than an ounce would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Less than one ounce would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.
The Murkowski administration insists marijuana is a different drug now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
The bill says marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is far more potent and dangerous today, especially for young people.
"If they're going to look at whether today's marijuana is still entitled to the same privacy protection, they need to look at what kind of drug we have now," said Dean Guaneli, the state's chief assistant attorney general.
The state claims THC levels have risen tenfold or more over the last three decades. The state Department of Law provided legislators 30 years of data on THC potency of marijuana seized in Alaska.
But opponents say the data are flawed because testing in the 1970s was faulty.
The potency-versus-privacy issue is testing Alaska's image as a bastion of rugged individualism.
"It's the old thing of, you can do anything you want as long as you don't step on someone else's toes doing it," said Marc Hellenthal, an Anchorage-based pollster who grew up in Alaska.
He says Alaskans' Libertarian-style leanings are alive and well in spirit.
Rival pollster David Dittman disagrees. He points out Alaskans voted to criminalize marijuana once again in 1990 — later struck down by the state Supreme Court — and twice turned down citizen initiatives that would have legalized the drug.
"I think it's just kind of an urban myth, that laissez-faire Libertarian element," he said.
Bill Parker, a former state legislator, thinks a majority of Alaskans fall somewhere in the middle.
"I don't think Alaska is ready to say, just like Safeway has a tobacco shop, there ought to be a marijuana section," said Parker, now a lobbyist for Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control. "I'm not sure where they are but I know it's not where Frank Murkowski is."