‘Pot’ use legal in Alaska, but details lacking

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska on Tuesday became the third U.S. state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults, but it was met with little fanfare.

Unlike in Colorado and Washington state, there were no street parties and public smoking displays in Alaska’s biggest cities. But backers of legal marijuana said the mild reaction was fitting because they are aiming to promote responsible consumption of marijuana as they work with lawmakers during the next few months in preparing its sale.

“We wish people would just celebrate in a little less public of a fashion,” said Bruce Schulte, an advocate for legalization. “We want to see this industry thrive in a responsible, regulated fashion, and part of that is responsible consumption.”

Placing Alaska in the same category as Washington state and Colorado with legal marijuana was the goal of a coalition that included libertarians, rugged individualists and small-government Republicans who prize the privacy rights enshrined in the Alaska Constitution.

When Alaska voters chose in November to legalize marijuana use by adults in private places, they left many of the details to lawmakers and regulators to sort out. That has left confusion on many matters.

The initiative bans smoking in public, but it doesn’t define what that means, and lawmakers left the question to the alcohol regulatory board. The board decided marijuana can’t be smoked in places generally accessible to the public, like parks, schools or on the street in Alaska.

On Tuesday, police in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, were prepared to hand out $100 fines for people smoking marijuana in public. But officers working the first shift after it became legal at 12:01 a.m. didn’t encounter anyone using the drug in public.

“The implementation of Ballot Measure 2 has provided us with a new set of freedoms, but like anything else, there are limits on those freedoms,” said Tim Hinterberger, the chairman of the pro-marijuana group Campaign to Regulate Marijuana, said at a Tuesday morning news conference. Despite the statewide directive, Alaska still allows different communities across the state to adopt different standards of what smoking in public means to them.

In Anchorage, for instance, Police Chief Mark Mew warned people against smoking on their porches if they live next to a park. But far to the north, in North Pole, smoking outdoors on private property will be allowed as long as it doesn’t create a nuisance, officials there said. In some respects, the confusion continues a four-decade reality for Alaskans and their relationship with marijuana.

While a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision protected personal marijuana possession and a 1998 initiative legalized medicinal marijuana, state lawmakers twice criminalized any possession over the years, creating an odd legal limbo. As of Tuesday, adult Alaskans can not only keep and use marijuana, they can transport it, grow it and give it away.

A second phase of the law, creating a regulated and taxed marijuana market, won’t start until 2016 at the earliest. That’s about the same timeline for Oregon, where voters approved legalizing marijuana the same day as Alaska did. The law there doesn’t go into effect until July 1.

Voters in Washington, D.C., also legalized marijuana in the November election, and the law is set to go into effect Thursday after congressional attempts to block it failed. Adults in the nation’s capital can possess up to 2 ounces, but Congress has forbidden sales of the drug there. Public use is prohibited.

The Alaska pro-marijuana group anticipates more states will begin legalizing the drug. “I think we’ve reached a tipping point on people’s thinking about marijuana in this country,” Hinterberger said. Meanwhile, leaders of Alaska’s indigenous tribes worry that legalization will bring new temptations to communities already confronting high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and suicide.

“When they start depending on smoking marijuana, I don’t know how far they’d go to get the funds they need to support it, to support themselves,” said Edward Nick, council member in Manokotak, a remote village of 400 that is predominantly Yupik Eskimo.

Both alcohol and drug use are prohibited in Nick’s village 350 miles southwest of Anchorage, even inside villagers’ homes. But Nick fears the initiative, in combination with a 1975 state Supreme Court decision that legalized marijuana use inside homes, could open doors to drug abuse.

Initiative backers promised indigenous leaders that communities could still have local control under certain conditions. Alaska law gives every community the option to regulate alcohol locally. From northern Barrow to Klawock, 1,291 miles away in southeast Alaska, 108 communities impose local limits on alcohol, and 33 of them ban it altogether.

But the initiative did not provide clear opt-out language for tribal councils and other smaller communities, forcing each one to figure out how to proceed.

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