JUNEAU -- Proponents of an initiative to decriminalize marijuana will get
another chance to put the measure on the 2004 ballot, a Superior Court
judge ruled.

Anchorage Superior Judge John Suddock ordered Lt. Gov. Loren Leman and the
state Division of Elections to reconsider nearly 200 petition booklets that
were rejected earlier.

Suddock said in a lengthy and, at times, scathing ruling issued Tuesday
that state elections officials did not do enough to help the marijuana
proponents work through the complicated initiative process. The Division of
Elections received the ruling Thursday.

Leman invalidated 194 booklets - for a variety of reasons - that contained
signatures in support of putting the measure on the 2004 ballot. As a
result, the group came up more than 7,000 signatures short of the required
28,742.

Leman, a former state senator who sponsored a bill in 1999 to turn back the
state's medical marijuana laws, oversees the state Division of Elections.

"The court is hesitant to find on this record that the Division of
Elections lay as a snake in the grass, knowing that the initiative
committee was at risk by virtue of reporting errors," Suddock wrote.

"However, the division was, at least, asleep at the switch."

Suddock ordered the state to reconsider the signature books it invalidated
within 60 days. If there are enough signatures then, he ordered Leman to
allow it on the ballot.

"I'm sure they would prefer not to have seen it on the ballot," said
Timothy Hinterberger, a sponsor of the measure. "If we're not on the
ballot, it won't be because we were short of signatures."

Elections officials were criticized for not doing enough to verify some
information, finding trivial problems or standing by and allowing the group
to make errors while gathering signatures.

Suddock, who was appointed last November by then-Gov. Tony Knowles, said
Alaska's initiative process is meant to be viewed liberally and the group's
constitutional rights should not hinge on trivial reporting violations.

The judge said in a footnote that Leman - a critic of efforts to legalize
marijuana - was acting on a recommendation from Division of Elections.

Leman dismissed any suggestion that politics colored the process that
ultimately led to rejecting the initiative.

"I have certified for circulation initiatives this year already that I
don't support. I have declined to certify issues I do support," Leman said.
"It doesn't have anything to do with what I think about this initiative."

Problems within the division, which were present before Leman took office
last year, have been identified and some have been corrected, he said.

"I believe citizens ought to be able to petition their government. We in
government ought to do everything we can to help citizens," Leman said. "If
we're not doing that, we need to change and be more helpful."

Leman said he has not decided whether to appeal the ruling. A meeting is
planned for next week to review the ruling, said Laura Glasier, director of
the Division of Elections.

"We're going to make it right," Glasier said.

In his ruling, Suddock ordered the two sides to appear in court Monday for
a status hearing.

[SIDEBAR]

On the Net:

http://www.gov.state.ak.us/ltgov/ele.../homepage.html


Pubdate: Thu, 25 Sep 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press
Author: Mike Chambers, Associated Press Writer