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High hopes in Alaska for sweeping pot law

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The420Guy

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ANCHORAGE - The folks behind a statewide ballot initiative to
decriminalize marijuana in Alaska will stare you down with their glassy
eyes and sermonize on the numerous commercial uses for industrial hemp,
the environmental benefits of hemp production and the medicinal benefits
of the cannabis plant.

And sure, the Nov. 7 measure is about all of those things.

Mostly, though, it's about the freedom to get stoned.

"In most places, you have to pass a pee test in order to work there," says
Soren Wuerth, a former head of the Alaska Green Party who works at the
Free Hemp in Alaska campaign office in Anchorage. "In our place, you have
to fail the pee test to work here."

Efforts to change laws, whatever they may be, tend to focus on incremental
steps. But instead of adopting a deliberate strategy, backers of the
Alaska marijuana initiative have declared anarchy.

The initiative is so sweeping - it not only would legalize pot for
personal use but grant amnesty to anyone with marijuana convictions - that
even the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
(NORML) and High Times, the Sports Illustrated for potheads, were slow to
support the measure.

The Free Hemp in Alaska campaign office is plastered with orange stickers
that organizers found while rummaging through inventories of secondhand
office supplies. The stickers, probably leftovers from a bakery, read,
"Baked with pride in Alaska."

It's a fitting motto for a campaign where some volunteers and paid workers
come to work high and where a few loiter near a back door to sneak tokes,
even though campaign protocol prohibits such behavior.

Some volunteers, including a 16-year-old boy, say they are at the
nonprofit campaign working off court-imposed community-service sentences
for marijuana-related convictions.

"Yeah, I find that ironic," says Thomas Holohan, 34, who satisfied 200
hours of community service by designing the campaign's Web site
(www.freehempinak.org).

"Sweet irony at that."

The campaign has set up shop in a strip mall on one of Anchorage's seedier
streets. A yellow mural painted on the south face of the building reads,
"Vote Yes. Nov. 7, 2000." The message and date are separated by an image
of a giant green cannabis leaf.

The campaign office side door is always open, providing passage to an
adjacent espresso bar with trippy decor that is the informal hangout for
the potheads, libertarians and environmentalists behind the initiative.

Coffee Shop Pax is a shrine to dope. A painted marijuana leaf frames the
top of four plate-glass windows. Garlands of fake marijuana leaves hang on
two pillars like wreaths and also ring the tip jar on the counter. A
picture of Bob Marley taking a toke is taped near an espresso machine.

On the other side of the coffee house is Exit Glass & Hemporium, which
sells soap, string, satchels and shirts, all made of hemp. It also sells
handmade pipes and glass jars to store stashes.

Within these surroundings, initiative supporters feel invincible.

What the law would do

If the initiative passes, Alaska will be the only state in the country to
legalize marijuana consumption, possession, distribution and cultivation
for personal use, practiced in private.

"Our law wouldn't protect you if you are caught smoking in a car, but it
would protect you if you are driving it to a friend's house to
smoke," explains Al Anders, chairman of Free Hemp in Alaska.

The law would apply to anyone 18 and older, even though Alaskans aren't
allowed to buy cigarettes until they are 19 or alcohol until 21. It would
release any Alaskan currently behind bars for a marijuana-related crime
and clear the criminal records of those with past convictions. And it
would convene a panel to consider restitution to those who have been
imprisoned.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles opposes the measure. A former U.S. attorney for
Alaska under President Bush, Wev Shea, is tirelessly campaigning against
it.

"If marijuana is legalized, it becomes socially acceptable, and once it
becomes socially acceptable, a lot more people are going to try it," Shea
says. "If this passes, what is going to be the perception of Alaska? That
we all just sit around and smoke dope?"

The section of the initiative that prohibits state or local
law-enforcement agencies from working on marijuana cases would shackle all
drug-enforcement efforts in a state that relies heavily on multiagency
task forces, Shea says.

"If this passes, Alaska is going to basically be the drug haven of North
America," he says.

Initiative supporter Mitch Mitchell, one year out of federal prison for
trafficking in 1,100 pounds of marijuana, thinks the initiative will be
good for tourism.

"They are going to have to build another airport," he says.

Pot at the polls

Political consultants in Alaska say the measure has a good shot at
passing, helped by a predicted high turnout for the presidential race and
a high-profile property-tax-limit initiative.

Opponents of the measure are concerned. "People in Alaska are free
thinkers, and their opinion - which obviously I don't agree with - is that
marijuana is a soft drug and therefore not a big deal," Shea says.

When handicapping the election, there also are practical things to
consider. Political pundits and people on both sides of the issue
agree: Alaskans are herb-friendly.

Two years ago, Alaskans voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana use for
medical patients. Washington and Oregon are among six states that have
passed similar laws recently.

Marijuana for private, recreational use was once legal in Alaska. In 1975,
the state Supreme Court extended the constitutional right to privacy to
marijuana use. In 1983, however, the Legislature limited amounts protected
under the law to 4 ounces or less. And in 1990, voters passed an
initiative that made marijuana illegal again.

Cheryl Lewis, a 45-year-old volunteer for this November's initiative, had
moved to Alaska two weeks before the 1990 measure was passed.

"I thought at the time that it was a vast conspiracy to make my life
miserable," she deadpans.

At the Free Hemp in Alaska phone bank, upstairs from the campaign office,
Lewis places calls to potential supporters. She learned of the initiative
when campaign workers went to Kinko's, where she worked, to make copies of
literature.

"The word `hemp' did catch my eye because I have, um, friends who may or
may not be occasional smokers," Lewis says. "I'm not admitting to
anything."

Sean Smeeden places phone calls at another table, soliciting contributions
of time and money. He is 16. When he and some buddies got busted for
setting fire to a trash can, police found marijuana in his coat pocket. He
is working off his community-service sentence by volunteering at the
campaign. He has promised his mother not to smoke pot until he turns 18.

"The arrest has been positive for me," he says. "If I hadn't been
arrested, I probably wouldn't be volunteering here."

Easy path to ballot


Anders, the guy in charge, is a political organizer for the Libertarian
Party who moved to Alaska three years ago from Indiana. In an effort to
register libertarian-leaning voters, he started the marijuana initiative
in the summer of 1999, never really believing he could amass the 21,000
signatures needed to get it on the November 2000 ballot.

Almost every day, he strapped a folding table to the back of his bicycle
and rode to locations in Anchorage where he would solicit signatures. He
gathered 13,000 by himself and realized he had something special going.

By January, six months before the deadline, the campaign had gathered
41,000 signatures - double what was needed to get the initiative on the
ballot.

"I smoke marijuana very little," Anders says. "Just at night sometimes to
help me relax."

Another campaign officer is Sil DeChellis, a 62-year-old who sold his
tattoo parlor and music emporium in Yreka, Calif., to help the Alaska
cause by becoming campaign treasurer.

DeChellis has smoked pot daily for 44 years. He says it helped him quit
smoking cigarettes and swear off alcohol 22 years ago. He also credits
marijuana for helping his health, particularly his stomach ulcers.

His parents, who were born in Italy, have never touched the stuff, but
they know their son is an enduring pothead. "They also know I'm a better
man smoking pot than I ever was as an alcoholic," he says.

Anders and DeChellis are assisted by Mitchell, who moved from Everett in
May to help organize. To him, the campaign is "not about us smoking pot -
it's about keeping the pigs from taking good people to prison." Mitchell
met some of those people in federal prison, where he served four years for
selling marijuana. He lambastes NORML for taking a measured approach to
marijuana reform.

"They've got a 20-year plan, and I've got buddies in prison for pot," he
says.

Keith Stroup, NORML founder and executive director, says the group now
supports the Alaska initiative, figuring it could inspire a movement in
other states. The group had musician Willie Nelson, an avowed pothead,
tape radio commercials supporting the initiative.

But Stroup still has misgivings.

The law would conflict with federal law if the state began to regulate
marijuana sales as it does alcohol, and federal law likely would prevail,
he says. Choosing his words diplomatically, he also says the section
calling for a panel to examine reparations for ex-cons is "language that
is intemperate strategically."

"I think somebody got a little carried away," Stroup says. "It's easy to
find fault with a word here or an attitude there, but this law essentially
says it is no longer a crime to possess, use, cultivate or sell
marijuana. And that's a very important statement."


Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company
Monday, September 25, 2000
by Stuart Eskenazi
Seattle Times staff reporter
Stuart Eskenazi's telephone message number is 206-464-2293.His e-mail
address seskenazi@seattletimes.com.