For Alaska, Marijuana Situation Status Quo, Officials Say

June 06, 2005

Nicole Tsong, Anchorage Daily News

Sick Alaskans who have been allowed to use marijuana under doctors' orders could face federal prosecution under a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued Monday, according to federal authorities.

The Supreme Court ruled that federal authorities may prosecute people using marijuana for medical purposes even if state laws allow such use.

However, federal officials that oversee Alaska said Monday the ruling is unlikely to result in a rash of prosecutions here.

Eric Gonzalez, spokesman for Alaska's FBI, said he couldn't recall a federal prosecution of a medical marijuana patient in Alaska.

'We typically target large-scale organizations,' he said. This case 'will have no impact on what the FBI is doing here in Anchorage, in Alaska.'

Alaskans legalized marijuana for medical use in a 1998 ballot initiative. But all marijuana possession remains against federal law.

The state has 198 currently registered medical users and a total of 570 since the law was passed, according to the state Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Registered user Jim Welch of Eagle River said he is worried that the decision could be used by Gov. Frank Murkowski to push an anti-marijuana agenda. Murkowski has proposed to increase penalties for marijuana possession and use at home.

Although directed at a challenged law in California, Monday's ruling likely applies to Alaska, state and federal officials said.

In addition to medical use, adult Alaskans are allowed to possess up to four ounces of pot for personal use in their homes. State courts reaffirmed that right last year, citing the state constitution's privacy clause.

Alaska Attorney General David Marquez said in a written statement that his office will be analyzing the Supreme Court ruling to see if it means medical marijuana is still legal in Alaska.

Other states have had instances in which caregivers licensed to provide marijuana to patients have used their licenses to run drug operations, said Rodney Benson, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Seattle. The Seattle office oversees Alaska.

Local prosecutors also have had a couple of cases involving caregivers who had more marijuana than is allowed, said Phil Moberly, who oversees the felony drug unit in the Anchorage district attorney's office.

But Benson said the DEA, like the FBI, focuses on large-scale trafficking and will continue to do so, but if authorities see signs that caregivers are taking advantage of their licenses to traffic in pot, they will target them.

Benson called the decision devastating to the marijuana legalization movement.

Advocates of legalization disagreed. Patients have always lived under the threat of federal prosecution and that hasn't changed with the ruling, said David Finkelstein, a former legislator who helped lead the successful 1998 campaign.

'This is basically the status quo,' he said. But he said the ruling was still disappointing.

Welch said he wasn't more worried about prosecution than before.

'I'm more concerned with Murkowski's demonization of the whole thing,' he said.

But possession remains vulnerable to federal prosecution, Gonzalez said. Any amount of pot is considered contraband under federal law, he said.

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