November 12, 2014

TICE | The High North: An Alaskan’s View on Marijuana Legalization

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By OLIVIA TICE

Alaska: the 49th state, where 735,000 residents reside on 663,000 square miles of land and almost half of the population (about 300,000) is concentrated in the state’s only major city, Anchorage. It seems to me that people are drawn to Alaska because of this overwhelmingly equal ratio of man to land (about one person per square mile if half of the state were even accessible by road). It is the possibility of the unknown, a place where materialism, pop culture and industrial development crumble under the weight of hundreds of thousands of miles of wilderness, where The Man can’t find you and the dirt road stops short of the adventure ahead, that coerces many to journey North and convinces them to stay. A land where camouflage is a fashion statement and pick-up trucks outnumber sedans four to one.

Until about 1990, Marijuana was decriminalized in Alaska; it was legal to posses up to an ounce in public and to posses and uses any amount in the privacy of one’s home. In November of that year, an initiative passed making pot 100 percent illegal, with fines up to $1000 and 90 days of jail time. It wasn’t until 1998 that medical marijuana became legal in the state, and in 2000 and 2004 initiatives for legalization showed up on the ballot but did not pass. Even the medical legalization in the state for the past decade has been criticized because residents find it nearly impossible to obtain the drug legally.

I was both surprised and underwhelmed at the same time last Friday morning when I awoke to the successful results of the Alaska midterm elections for Ballot Measure 2: The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol. On the one hand, I have vivid memories of high school horror stories in which peers got slammed with possession, juvi time and fines simply for possessing paraphernalia in a vehicle (which was yes, illegal). I can remember watching late night news as a child and seeing the name Joseph Frederick and the words “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” shamed and criticized by officials, parents and teachers. It was not until I settled into the liberal atmosphere of a college campus that my predispositions about the federally deemed schedule one drug were completely transformed. Raised in rural area by liberal-ish parents, but a conservative general adult population, I thought that in my small fishing town pot was the drug of high school graduates who never left, the unproductive and the socially disrespected. If you smoked, you’d better hide it, and if you didn’t hide it, you were hopeless.

On the other hand, I have encountered an attitude amongst many residents that boasts pride in individual freedoms and the right to do as one pleases on their land and in their home. In the “last frontier” of outdoorsmen (and women), Alaskans fight for their rights; people come to live off of the grid and out of the scrutinizing eye of the nation, cultivating a stronghold of tree-hugger, granolas, hikers and hippies. In this respect, it is only natural that they’d like to be able to posses and use marijuana if they please, especially in their own homes. Along these lines, it was the rural populations of Alaska that consistently voted yes on Ballot measure two whereas the moderately populated areas of the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna Valley, two conservative strongholds, voted no. The issue drew many to the polls last week, and Alaska came in number three in the nation for voter turnout.

For the 18 years that I was raised in Alaska, marijuana laws were strictly enforced and I had always associated the drug with a negative connotation. This was due in part to leftovers of the “War on Drugs” and programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., that put marijuana in the category of “risky gateway drug,” a loaded claim that has proven inaccurate throughout my adolescent experience. I hope that legalization will help to change the manner in which Alaskans think about marijuana, and that we can indeed approach it the same way we do alcohol or tobacco. I don’t expect it to happen overnight, but I’m eager to one day return home to a culture (maybe not of encouragement or complete acceptance) that is willing to recognize and accept marijuana in its recreational use.

Olivia Tice is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at otice@cornellsun.com.