Debate over marijuana reform hazy

“Doobie or Not Doobie?: That is the Marijuana Question,” was one of the playful titles suggested to assistant professor Jason Brandeis of the UAA Justice Center for an upcoming public discussion at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on March 5.

The problem for Brandeis, who acted as moderator, was that “marijuana legalization is a serious subject and a serious public policy issue,” and though many may find pot-related puns irresistible, the event ended up simply being titled “Time to Legalize? A Public Discussion on Marijuana Law and Policy.”

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, has been at the forefront of the national legalization effort and acted as keynote speaker at Wednesday’s event.

“In Washington and Colorado they also talk about the Lower 48. But in their view the Lower 48 are the states who have yet to legalize marijuana. You don’t wanna stay in the Lower 48!” Nadelmann declared.

Colorado made history when it became the first state to legalize sales of marijuana for recreational use, and on Jan. 1 pot retailers opened for business across the state. Washington state is scheduled to begin retail sales in a similar fashion in June. A 2013 Gallup poll found that a majority 58 percent of Americans favor legalization. Coincidentally, a 2011 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services found that 58 percent of Americans 12 and older had never used marijuana.

Described by Brandeis as the “anti-Ethan,” Ben Cort, seated at the opposite end of the panelists table, is a Colorado resident actively opposed to legalization. He appeared on behalf of the policy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, also known as Project SAM.

Referring to the marijuana legalization ballot initiative to be voted on by Alaskans in the August primary election, Cort said “I’ve read it. Read it, understand it and know it’s not legalization. This is an effort at industrialization of marijuana in your home state, like they did in mine.”

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Project SAM has taken to calling the commercialization of marijuana “another Big Tobacco,” claiming that deliberate targeting of children and severe public health costs will be marks of the marijuana industry also.

“A commercial marijuana industry will act just as the tobacco industry acts. Big Tobacco may even take over a marijuana industry once it’s up and running,” Project SAM’s website reads.

Cort, a recovered addict who has been deeply involved with the recovery community for years, believes the mental health risks of marijuana outweigh the benefits, especially for children. He also shares the belief with Project SAM that penalties for marijuana possession should consist of structured treatment interventions.

“I will never advocate putting people in jail for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. What I do think is we’ve got to maintain the ability to do is to have those brief interventions,” Cort said.

Taylor Bickford, with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, refuted Cort’s assertions. He said, “What SAM articulated through their principles a few weeks ago is if you get caught with marijuana you’re forced into treatment, and if you don’t follow through with that treatment, then you’re forced into jail.”

Dean Guaneli, former chief assistant attorney general for Alaska, was seated next to Cort. He doesn’t think current marijuana laws are a problem in Alaska and believes legalization is too risky to make sense.

“There’s so many problems with marijuana, the amount of dependency … making alcohol treatment more difficult, making mental health treatment more difficult. People have psychotic breaks more frequently,” Guaneli said.

Speaking to Bickford’s previous comments about bringing a criminal industry  “above ground,” to be taxed, Guaneli answered, “Sure we can tax it a little bit. Colorado’s on slate to get maybe $100 million in tax revenue this year, but they’ve got seven times the population. Alaska might get 15 million dollars. … Are we gonna build a couple of classrooms with that amount of money?”

In response, Nadelmann said tax revenue from legal marijuana sales in Colorado over the past two months has been twice as high as expected.

The fifth panelist, Lance Buchholtz, a retired Wisconsin sheriff and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, offered comments from the law enforcement perspective.

“One of the things I’m concerned with, and what brought me to LEAP, was the militarization of law enforcement. Instead of being community caretakers, when you have a drug war, you have to have warriors, and people are afraid to approach their local police nowadays,” Buchholtz said.

Buchholtz’s closing comments took on a more holistic tone. “We have had a relationship with this plant for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years,” he said. “The prohibition is what is atypical of our relationship with this plant, and it will go down in history as being an apparition.”

The company Public Policy Polling released polls of Alaskan voters in February finding  that 55 percent of voters overall and 72 percent of voters under age 30 support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.


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