Governor moves to change pot law

(Published: January 22, 2005)

POSSESSION: A bill to outlaw small amounts for personal use is before the Legislature.

By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News

JUNEAU -- Gov. Frank Murkowski on Friday asked the Legislature to overrule a court ruling that adult Alaskans have the right to possess marijuana for personal use in their homes.

Murkowski introduced a bill that challenges the state court's ruling and that would significantly tighten other state marijuana laws -- making a lot more pot crimes into felonies. "The Legislature finds that marijuana poses a threat to the public health that justifies prohibiting its use in this state, even by adults in private," the bill declares. Everyone expects the fight to go back to the courts if the Legislature passes the bill. The ruling that made at-home pot possession of up to four ounces legal for personal use was based on the right to privacy in the state constitution. The Legislature cannot change the constitution without a statewide vote. But the governor hopes the bill and hearings over it will show the courts that pot is a lot more powerful than it used to be and that the state has an overriding interest in forbidding it. William Satterberg, the Fairbanks lawyer who argued the case that toppled the state prohibition on at-home pot, said he doesn't think the courts will backtrack. "Unconstitutional still remains unconstitutional no matter what the Legislature thinks," Satterberg said. The Alaska Supreme Court in September let stand a lower court ruling last year that adult Alaskans have the right to possess up to four ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use. The lower court based its opinion on a 1975 decision, known as Ravin v. State, which declared the strong right to privacy from government interference that is guaranteed under the Alaska Constitution outweighed any social harm that might be caused by the small at-home use of marijuana by adults. Ravin remained the law in Alaska until 1990, when voters passed an initiative outlawing all amounts of marijuana. But last year's court ruling said a constitutionally protected right -- in this case at-home pot -- cannot be taken away by an initiative. Murkowski argues that marijuana is a lot stronger and more harmful nowadays than in 1975 when the courts said the right to privacy outweighed the social harm. The governor said the bill he introduced Friday will help the state make it clear to the courts that this is the case. "The bill would provide a forum for the Legislature to hear expert testimony on the effects of marijuana and to make findings that the courts can rely on," the governor said in a letter to lawmakers. Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage and a member of the House leadership, said the court overruled the will of the Legislature and Alaska voters when it declared some at-home use of marijuana to be legal. He said he expects the Legislature will be interested in taking a good look at Murkowski's bill. The bill would also make possession of more than four ounces of pot a felony. The felony cutoff under current law is a pound. The bill would also make it a felony to give or sell any marijuana to anyone under the age of 21. The Alaska public defender's agency said it would need another $160,000 a year in state funds to meet its increased workload under the bill.

"We handle 500 misdemeanor drug cases, primarily involving marijuana," the agency said in a written statement. "At least half of these would become felonies. Felonies take more work than misdemeanors."