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Leman: State Won't Appeal Pot Initiative

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ANCHORAGE - An initiative to decriminalize marijuana in Alaska may end
up on the 2004 ballot after all.

The state will not appeal a court order to reconsider nearly 200
petition booklets that were invalidated by state elections officials,
Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said Monday.

The state's decision was influenced by weighing the cost of appealing
the court order against the risk of losing.

"The risk wasn't worth the cost," said Leman, a former state senator
who sponsored a bill in 1999 to restrict the state's medical marijuana

In a Sept. 23 ruling, Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock
ordered Leman and the state Division of Elections to take another look
at the rejected booklets, saying officials did not do enough to help
proponents through the complicated initiative process.

As a result of the state's actions, proponents came up more than 7,000
signatures short of the required 28,742.

Elections workers are counting the resurrected ballot signatures and
will have a final tally by the Nov. 23 deadline set by Suddock, said
Leman, who oversees the elections division.

Timothy Hinterberger, a sponsor of the measure, said initiative
supporters are confident they have enough valid signatures to get the
measure on the ballot. Hinterberger was among initiative backers that
sued the state after the initiative was turned down in January.

Proponents had collected about 50,000 signatures, Hinterberger said.
Each petition booklet contains 150 lines for signatures, so the 194
petition booklets rejected earlier potentially represent 29,100
signatures that can now be reviewed in light of the state's decision
not to appeal.

"We're pleased, of course," said Hinterberger, who attended Monday's
news conference. "We did not believe there were strong grounds for
appeal. Now we can educate voters."

Hinterberger said proponents expect the initiative to fare better than
a more sweeping measure rejected by voters in 2000 that sought to
legalize marijuana and provide reparations for some drug convicts. The
new measure would decriminalize marijuana for people at least 21 years
old and "open the way for agricultural production of hemp products,"
Hinterberger said.

The ultimate goal for supporters is to see government regulate
marijuana the same as alcohol.

"Drug policies overall are full of contradictions and hypocrisy,"
Hinterberger said. "Prohibition of a popularly used substance does not
work in a free society."

Leman - a critic of efforts to decriminalize marijuana - said his
views had nothing to do with the process that led to disqualifying the
initiative. He was acting on a recommendation by the Division of
Elections, followed by a second opinion from the Department of Law in
January, shortly after he took office.

"There are initiatives I don't agree with that I have certified and
some that I do agree with that I have not certified," Leman said.

Suddock had criticized elections officials for finding trivial
problems or standing by and allowing proponents to make errors while
gathering signatures.

In his ruling, Suddock said Alaska's initiative process is intended to
be viewed liberally and the group's constitutional rights should not
hinge on trivial reporting violations.

Leman said Suddock was following the "spirit of the law rather than
the law itself." Still, he conceded, problems within the division were
present before he took office in December. They have since been
identified and are being corrected, he said. Others would require
statutory changes, a process Leman said his office will take up with
the Legislature.

"The rules of petition need to be more clear," Leman said. "I want
Alaskans to understand them and be able to follow them."

Pubdate: Tue, 21 Oct 2003
Source: Juneau Empire (AK)
Copyright: 2003 Southeastern Newspaper Corp
Contact: letterstotheeditor@juneauempire.com
Website: Juneau Empire - Alaska's Capital City Online Newspaper