Literally and figuratively, it's a burning question: Can Alaskans have
marijuana or not?

The state Court of Appeals recently said yes, ruling that adult Alaskans
can legally possess up to a quarter pound of marijuana in their homes for
personal use. But the ruling, based on the two-year-old case of a North
Pole man found with marijuana in his home, has met with varying responses
from local and statewide law enforcement agencies and state prosecutors.

Police Director Paul Harris said it would be "business as usual" at the
Fairbanks Police Department.

"If you break the law, you end up suffering the consequences," he said.
"This appeals court decision does not affect how we do business."

For the FPD, Harris said, "business as usual" means officers won't go out
of their way to raid a residence because they suspect there is personal-use
pot inside. When in a home for another purpose, however, police may press
charges if personal-use pot is found there--but Harris said that generally
isn't done except under certain circumstances, such as when there are
juveniles involved or when the home is in a drug-free school zone.

"Every case is different," he said.

But he said the FPD will still raid homes and press charges where there is
a suspected commercial-growing operation. And the department presses
charges when it finds personal-use pot in cars, he said.

"You possess a seed in a car and you'll probably get charged, because we
don't want you driving under the influence of marijuana," he said.

Harris said he doesn't consider the appeals court decision a legalization
of pot, noting that it is still illegal under federal law.

"I would recommend that if you want to keep a clean record, you not use
marijuana," he said.

In the case of the Alaska State Troopers, state Commissioner of Public
Safety Bill Tandeske told the Anchorage Daily News earlier this month that
troopers would not be pressing charges on personal-use pot.

He said that the troopers will look for direction to the state Department
of Law. But in light of the new ruling, he said, "We wouldn't file a case
on it."

Trooper Sgt. Ron Wall, head of the Fairbanks branch of the Alaska Drug
Enforcement Agency, said the agency doesn't conduct raids for personal-use pot.

"We generally target more serious offenders," he said.

He said when the ADEA does encounter personal-use pot, it generally doesn't
press charges but does confiscate it. Wall said even if the appeals court
has found possession legal, the agency would like to continue to confiscate
pot because it can be used to link to actual drug dealers. He said he had
yet to contact the district attorney to find out whether that would be
allowable. "I need to discuss it with the D.A.," he said.

When police or troopers do press personal-possession charges, it is up to
the district attorney's office whether or not to follow through with them
in court. Fairbanks District Attorney Jeff O'Bryant said during a brief
chat with a reporter last week that it's "business as usual" at the office
when it comes to pot prosecutions.

On the state level, prosecutors have not yet decided what to do about small
pot busts in homes. The state plans to ask the Alaska Supreme Court to
review the appeals court's ruling.

"Right now we are taking a look at (the court decision) to determine what
our avenue of appeal is going to be," Susan Parkes, chief of the criminal
division of the Alaska Department of Law, told the Anchorage Daily News
earlier this month. "Once we do that, we will look at four-ounces-or-less
cases, and what our policy is going to be."

The ruling, based on the broad right to privacy guaranteed in Alaska's
Constitution, does not affect most of the state's marijuana laws, Parkes
noted. People will still be prosecuted for selling marijuana, possessing
any amount of it outside their own home or having four ounces or more at
home, she said.

Possession of any amount of marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess would not say how federal prosecutors would react
if asked to take on small marijuana possession cases that the state could
no longer pursue.

"We get (different types of) cases referred to us all the time," Burgess
said. "We look at a lot of these on a case-by-case basis and balance them
with a lot of other things we are doing."

Reporter Tom Moran contributed to this article.

Pubdate: Mon, 15 Sep 2003
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (AK)
Copyright: 2003 Fairbanks Publishing Company, Inc.