Daunting Outlook for Alaska

Prospects are starting to look dicey for Ballot Measure 2, which would legalize marijuana in Alaska. Smart Alternatives to Marijuana, the brainchild of legalization foe Kevin Sabet, has seized the advantage, and polls are now running 49 to 44 percent against, a shift from the 55 percent approval rate in early 2014.

Election fever usually kicks into high gear after Labor Day, so much remains to happen. The cause of legalization in Alaska may actually be helped by the presence of a high profile Senate race and ballot questions on minimum wage and protection of environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay, and vice versa. Legalization may be down two runs at the top of the seventh, but “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” in the immortal words of Yogi Berra.


SAM on the Offensive in Alaska

SAM began recruiting and organizing in Alaska early in the year, and although it failed to block efforts to get the question of legalization on the November ballot, it has had more recent successes.

  • In May, “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2,” the local name of the SAM-backed campaign, received a $25,000 contribution from Chenega Corporation, an Alaska Native Service Corporation, specializing in government service contracts.
  • SAM was represented at a July 21 debate sponsored by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce by its spokesperson, Katrina Wollston, an employee of Chenega.
  • The Alaska Conference of Mayors voted to oppose the initiative during an August 13 meeting in Nome, and pledged to donate $5,000.

SAM started late, but has picked up speed, while the efforts of advocates have been described as “sluggish.”


Alaska Swings Like a Pendulum

The state is politically conservative, deep red but with a wide stripe of libertarianism. The combination can produce inconsistent results that are hard to predict and apparently self-contradictory.

Personal in-home possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana and up to 24 plants has been legal since 1982, protected as a privacy right under the Alaska Constitution. The state legalized medical marijuana in 1998, but never set up a dispensary system. Ballot initiatives to fully legalize were defeated in 2000 and 2004.

An initiative to re-criminalize marijuana was approved in 1990 but struck down as unconstitutional. In 2006, the legislature passed another recriminalization statute for the possession of small amounts, but no one has ever been arrested under it, so it remains untested in the courts. Anything, absolutely anything, can happen with marijuana legalization in Alaska.


Get Out the Vote Affects Other Issues

Lots of things are happening on the November 4 ballot, including a hotly contested U.S. Senate race. The Democratic incumbent, Mark Begich, led in the latest PPP poll, but it widely regarded as vulnerable. The Democratic Party is deeply concerned about retaining control of the Senate, and can be expected to spend all available resources to get out the vote to protect its razor-thin majority. Liberals and libertarians often meet on issues of marijuana policy and a GOTV effort on behalf of Begich could coincidentally benefit Ballot Measure 2, as well.

The reverse is also true. The possibility that Republicans could control both houses of Congress for the next two years should concern proponents of federal moves to decriminalize. As currently divided between a Republican controlled House and a Democratically controlled Senate, Congress has been frustratingly unable to act, but a unified Republican Congress could do serious damage.

There may be a similar symbiosis between Ballot Measure 3, which would raise Alaska’s minimum wage to $8.75 per hour on January 1, 2015, $9.75 per hour on January 1, 2016, and adjusted thereafter for inflation or remaining $1 higher than the federal minimum wage, whichever amount is greater. If this measure brings out younger voters, it may also benefit the issue of legalization.

To the extent that an environmentally-aware voter is also pro-legalization, much the same may be true of Ballot Measure 4. That would give the legislature the power to prohibit mining projects in Bristol Bay if the activity is found harmful to wild salmon.

Voting “yes” on 2, 3, and 4, and pulling the lever for Begich makes sense as a political strategy. The smart money is on a GOTV effort that works with all three constituencies.

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