Patricia Patterson had to break the law to help save her son’s life.
When Ben Cantil was diagnosed with testicular cancer while in college about five years ago, he underwent aggressive chemotherapy and was in horrible pain, Patterson said. With the suddenness of the disease and insufficient time to sign up for medical marijuana as treatment, she bought pot from a drug dealer to help treat Cantil’s ailment.
“The difference was night and day,” she said. “With one bowl he went from lying in bed in a ball to sitting up and able to eat. It makes me mad that the only way I could help him was to become a criminal.”
Alaskans have a big decision to make in the next three days: Should marijuana be legalized and be regulated and taxed like alcohol?
Cantil is now living in Boston cancer free and is a successful DJ that tours the country, she said.
Patterson, owner of Lucky Raven Tobacco in Soldotna, said she supports marijuana legalization because she believes regulation will equal control. She said she doesn’t smoke marijuana but sees the benefits of regulating it the same way as tobacco and alcohol.
“It is stupid to fight it, smart to control it,” she said. “When you put a product in the front yard it is better than hiding it in the back yard.”
If passed, Ballot Measure 2 would legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana in Alaska. Possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants would be legal to those 21 years and older. The measure would allow the state to create a regulatory system or marijuana control board and tax the substance at $50 an ounce wholesale, according to the initiative.
As the general election nears, both groups for and against legalization have made their points and counterpoints on the positives and negatives associated with shifting Alaska laws from decriminalization to legalization of cannabis.
Pot in Alaska
In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in the Ravin v. State court decision that held the Alaska’s Constitution’s right to privacy protects an adult’s ability to possess a small amount of marijuana in the home for personal use.
The confusion in Alaska’s pot law is while marijuana in small amounts is allowed at home, but because the drug is illegal at the federal level, users are still breaking the law by buying the drug in the black market and transportation of marijuana is illegal, said Bill Parker, a former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections.
A voter initiative in 1998 legalized medical marijuana in Alaska.
Two previous ballot measures to legalize marijuana failed in 2000 and 2004. The measure on this year’s ballot is modeled on a 2012
Colorado initiative that ushered in a recreational-pot industry, which opened Jan. 1, when the law went into effect.
Parker was involved in the 2004 campaign to legalize marijuana when the vote failed with 44 percent in support of legalization. Ten years later he said he expects the vote to be close and the undecided voters will ultimately make the difference.
“We’ve had to convince the average Alaskan prohibition is worse than the substance,” he said. “ The problem with decriminalization is it leaves the black market in place. Alaska is at a tipping point.”
In the weeks leading up to the 2014 vote, Alaskans have been inundated with competing statistics. Speakers from Colorado and Washington based interest groups have visited the state and shared their points of view on the impacts of marijuana legalization. Fire officials and police chiefs from Colorado have warned Alaskan first responders about the dangers of butane hash oil explosions – a byproduct of legalization and in-home marijuana-product production.
Denver Assistant Fire Chief Dave McGrail was the keynote speaker at the Alaska Fire Conference hosted in Kenai in September. He shared what firefighters in Colorado have dealt with since
legalization and told an audience in the Kenai Central High School auditorium to “not make the same mistake we did.” He referred to marijuana users as “dips—s.”
According to a report prepared by the Marijuana Policy Group, regulating marijuana in Alaska could generate more than $72.5 million in tax revenue in the first five years of legal sales and $8.5 million the first year.
Parker, co-sponsor of the marijuana initiative along with University of Alaska Anchorage professor Tim Hinterberger, said the war on marijuana has been a tremendous waste of public resources and cost to taxpayers.
He said it is difficult to predict how much money legalization would bring into the state but it would “no doubt” pay for the regulatory costs and the excess revenue could go into drug education.
Parker contends arguments made by the no campaign are fear tactics.
“People that have used marijuana know it is not as dangerous or impactful as alcohol,” he said. “The portion of the population that don’t use marijuana or alcohol are the people (“No on 2”) are aimed at.”
Responsible adults 21 and older should not be punished for choosing to use a substance that is “objectively safer” than alcohol, he said. Police and prosecutors should be able to spend their time and go after serious drug abusers, he said.
Parker said the argument that legalization would make marijuana more accessible to young people is flawed.
It is now easier for a teenager to get marijuana than alcohol because purchasing beer for minors comes with a penalty, he said. If the measure passed, the state would be given nine months to establish a regulatory framework in which a marijuana board would oversee the market and develop the necessary regulations, he said.
Lark Kirk, a police chief from Missouri visited the Kenai Peninsula last week to provide the perspective as a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Kirk said reports from Colorado about increased homeless people that have come to the state because of legalization are false. According to state statistics, the unemployment rate in Colorado last year was 6.8. It is now 5.1 percent.
“People are not going to move if they can’t afford it,” he said.
Kirk said in his 20 years in law enforcement responding to calls he has come across so many fights that have involved alcohol and not one for marijuana. In one year he made 200 DUI arrests and one was for marijuana.
Big Marijuana, Big Mistake
Anchorage resident Kristina Woolston, spokesperson for “No on 2,” said it is impossible to regulate marijuana like alcohol. The Colorado initiative is too vague and has gaping holes, which has made it difficult to enforce.
Woolston said the “No on 2” campaign is a grassroots organization that started after Marijuana Policy Project, based out of Washington D.C., targeted Alaska to advance its national strategy of legalization.
While one of the main drivers behind legalization is the potential revenue that could come to the state, Woolston said the amount of revenue from marijuana sales in Colorado is lower than predicted. Voters were told $130 million in the first year and they have seen $21 million, she said.
Loopholes in regulation enforcement have cost the state money, as law enforcement has spent time, and resources on police training to adapt to all the regulations, she said.
The estimated cost to regulate marijuana is more than $7 million a year to the state, according to a state of Alaska statement of cost document.
Woolston participated in a town hall debate with Kirk in Seward recently. The debate drew about 40 people who asked questions about cost, regulatory process and incarceration, she said.
Woolston said she pushed back and challenged Kirk because he came from a state that hasn’t dealt with the challenges police have experienced in Colorado and Washington. In Missouri, marijuana is decriminalized as it is in Alaska.
“It’s always fun when people from outside Alaska think they have an idea of how Alaska works,” she said. “Half of Alaska is unincorporated areas and rural villages and don’t have local government control.”
Woolston said she was concerned that legalization would make it easier for young people to get marijuana. Kids could also be targeted by advertising the same way tobacco companies did, she said. In Colorado the tax, which increased the marijuana cost, created a continued black market and as a result, crime has escalated, she said.
“Colorado has had so many unintended consequences since marijuana was legalized,” she said. “With so many questions Alaska is better served to look at ways to make it work. Decriminalization is a far cry from promoting and encouraging use.”
Soldotna resident Kalie Klaysmat, executive director of Alaska Association Chiefs of Police, (AACOP) said one of her major concerns is the potential increase of stoned drivers on the road and how police could determine when someone is too high to drive.
“It’s a complicated issue with no set number like alcohol,” she said. “One problem is (marijuana) affects judgment and reaction.”
Klaysmat said AACOP has a combined membership of more than 1,000 police officers who are in opposition to ballot measure 2, but have been silenced by their municipalities and unable to take a stand on the issue. She said she is their voice.
“The public is looking at the local police and think they must not be concerned because they are not speaking out,” she said. “That is not the case. A majority of chiefs are not allowed to speak due to administrative policies because it is a controversial issue. It is unfortunate because they have expertise on public safety on the issue.”
AACOP lists 14 reasons against marijuana legalization. According to its web site, legalization will place a significant financial burden on local law enforcement due to the need of special training to identify impaired drivers.
People under the influence of marijuana could also present a safety risk to workers at job sites, she said. The increased level of THC potency in edibles is also a concern to how it could affect the user, Klaysmat said.
Under the present Alaska statute, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 90 days in prison and $2,000 fine. Possession of more than four ounces of cannabis is a class C felony. It can be punished by up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Marijuana arrests are charged as a controlled substance in the sixth-degree under criminal law, said Alaska State Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters. Hash oil, on the other hand, which is made by altering cannabis plant material to increase the THC levels, is classified as a schedule three controlled substance.
Peters said it is difficult for arrest statistics to show just how many people are arrested for just marijuana because in most cases it is not the only charge. Often, if troopers pull over a vehicle and find only marijuana the person is issued a summons, she said.
In 2011 troopers made 1,211 arrests or charges for marijuana related crimes statewide. In 2013, that number dropped to 669.
“Troopers are neutral on the initiative because it’s the citizen’s decision and needs to go through its own process,” Peters said. “It’s for the people to decide.”
Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik and Kenai Police Chief Gus Sandahl both declined to weigh in on marijuana legalization until after the general election.
In a previous Clarion interview, Mlynarik said he did have concerns with people driving under the influence of pot and would increase enforcement and add more personnel if needed.
“I’m not sure of the ramifications or what problems would arise but we will be ready either way,” he said. “We will see how it all plays out.”
Addiction and health effects
Kristie Sellers, director of Behavior Health at Central Peninsula Hospital, said both sides of the marijuana issue have merit. The cost that goes into enforcement is money that could be better spent elsewhere, she said.
As a drug addiction counselor for Serenity House, a 12-bed facility with a 30-45 day treatment program, she said most people with substance abuse addictions to drugs, like heroin and meth, have also abused alcohol and marijuana.
Sellers said she is concerned that if marijuana was legalized, it could make the drug more easily accessible.
“The big difference is if marijuana is legalized it makes it more acceptable in our society. As a counselor that puts a knot in my stomach,” she said.
She said the war on drugs has failed and as a result the rates of addiction are high, jails are overcrowded and many people cannot get the drug treatment they need.
“Treatment works and there are millions of people in this world living in long-term recovery,” she said.
Sellers said the history of alcohol prohibition is a good lesson because it took a long time to get things figured out.
“I think legalization will happen and I think it will be fascinating to see how it impacts our society.” she said. “It is hard to predict. It could be great and have a positive impact or could lead to disastrous repercussions if not handled properly.”
Kenai resident Anita Davis said she is unsure how she would vote on the measure. She said that the more time to analyze the results coming from Washington and Colorado would help her decide.
“I don’t think we know enough about how it’s going to impact the community,” Davis said. “I understand the need for medical marijuana and I want people that need it to have access.”
Patterson said she has never had a problem with an employee under the influence of marijuana, but could not say the same for alcohol.
“I have fired five people in 14 years because they couldn’t get through an eight-hour shift without alcohol,” she said. “I have never fired anyone for marijuana. In my mind, alcohol is far more dangerous.”
Kenai resident Braeden Bates, 21, said he sees far more positives in marijuana legalization than negatives.
“I would rather be home stoned on my couch eating chips than drunk driving,” he said. “Who does it harm? It helps people with cancer. As soon as I get home from work I can roll up a joint and relax.”