By Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Alaska will become the first state to make marijuana legal if voters approve a measure on Tuesday's ballot that has drawn criticism from the Bush administration.
The Alaska proposal is the most provocative of three ballot measures in Western states aimed at easing restrictions on marijuana. Montana voters will consider a proposal to join nine other states in legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. And in Oregon — which is one of the states that allows medical marijuana — voters will weigh whether to allow patients and caregivers to grow and possess larger amounts of marijuana than are allowed now.
The measures have drawn fire from the White House, which has sent representatives to the states to campaign against the measures.
In Alaska, marijuana is in legal limbo. State courts have ruled that it is legal to possess up to 4 ounces of the leaf for personal use, but a 1990 ballot initiative made marijuana possession a crime. Legislators say they will rework the state's marijuana laws to comply with the court rulings. Tuesday's initiative, however, proposes legalizing marijuana for those 21 and older and regulating it as Alaska and other states do with cigarettes and alcohol.
Backers of the Alaska measure cast it as a way to help keep marijuana from youths. "We believe ... we can reduce teen access to marijuana with a regulatory system," said David Finkelstein of Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control. "It is clear that prohibition hasn't worked."
Government officials — including Scott Burns of the White House Office of National Drug Control Police, who visited Alaska recently — have countered with an anti-marijuana message. "Those people who are pushing these measures look at is as a freedom issue," he said. "But they don't see ... the addiction issue, the dysfunction in families, the treatment problems. Nobody can tell me what the upside is of making marijuana more available."
The Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., has helped the Alaskan activists by creating TV commercials and buying airtime for them. The ads emphasize privacy rights and accuse the government of wasting money in pursuing those with small amounts of marijuana. The local group has received donations from about 1,000 local donors, but the bulk of its funding, $854,813 as of Tuesday, has come from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Finkelstein said.
"There was a strong local movement and we wanted to be of help," MPP spokesman Bruce Mirken said.
A poll conducted this month for the activists found that the ballot initiative was trailing by at least 8 percentage points.
In Montana, a medical marijuana initiative that would make the drug available to patients with a doctor's prescription has received strong support in several polls.
Paul Befumo, an investment adviser in Missoula who helps lead the campaign for the initiative, got involved after his father died of cancer. His father was overcome by nausea and lost weight during treatment, which left him weak and unable to recover, Befumo said. Marijuana might have improved his appetite, he said.
Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, opposes the measure.
The Oregon measure would modify the state's medical marijuana law that was passed in 1998 to allow patients to have up to a pound of marijuana and 10 plants at one time. It also would require the state to license non-profit groups to be marijuana distributors. The measure is opposed by the state's medical association, district attorneys and the White House.