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50 Years of Legal Pot – How Alaska Legalized, Recriminalized, then Legalized Again

alaska cannabis
Written by Alexandra Hicks

When we think of states that are at the forefront of pro-cannabis legislation, we tend to focus on states like California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Alaska often remains overlooked – despite almost 50 years of legalization (albeit complicated and not entirely consistent) granted by a state constitution that puts our federal government’s to shame. Given the history, current state of affairs, and unique approach to handling cannabis laws, why aren’t we looking at Alaska for more answers and examples of how to run a successful marijuana market? 

Cannabis laws are complicated, and Alaska’s history is just about as confusing as they come. Most people don’t realize how long cannabis has been legal in the state, and Alaska is simply not one of the states that initially comes to mind when we look at pot progression. Remember to subscribe to The THC Weekly Newsletter for deals on legal cannabis products, as well as all the latest news and industry stories. Also save big on Delta 8Delta 9 THCDelta-10 THCTHCOTHCVTHCP & HHC products by checking out our “Best-of” lists!

Legalization timeline on the Last Frontier  

Alaska’s long, complex history with cannabis started 47 years ago when they became the second state to decriminalize cannabis in 1975, trailing behind only Oregon who had done so 2 years prior. The law passed on May 16, 1975, without the governor’s signature, and cannabis possession of less than one ounce was punishable only by a $100 fine. 

One week later, a landmark case Ravin vs. State was decided in favor of Irwin Ravin, an attorney who deliberately got himself arrested in Anchorage for refusing to sign a traffic ticket while in possession of cannabis. His reason for doing so was to emphasize the importance of privacy, as per the state’s constitution, in one’s own home or other personal property. He won, and Alaska became the first and only state to announce that the constitutional right to privacy offers a certain level of protection to cannabis users.  

In 1982, a few years after the Ravin decision, the state took things a step further and tossed out the $100 fine, as well as bumped up the maximum legal amount to four ounces in the home, or one ounce outside the home. These laws lasted almost a decade, until the people of Alaska voted ‘yes’ on measure 2 in 1990, which recriminalized the possession of cannabis, even in one’s home. Then, possession became punishable by up to $1000 and, possibly, 90 days in jail.  

In 1998, Measure 8 to legalize cannabis for medical use only passed with 58.7% of the vote. The measure allowed licensed patients to grow up to six plants and possess up to one ounce of raw, smokeable flower.  

Over the next few years, cannabis was decriminalized and recriminalized a few times, and the state suffered a couple failed attempts a full legalization as well, in 2000 and 2004. By 2014, the frontier state was finally ready to make the leap and recreational cannabis was legalized, with 53.2% of voters in favor. Alaska was the third state to legalize cannabis, preceded by Washington and Colorado in 2012.  

Alaska’s constitution and the right to privacy 

Alaska is one of only a handful of states that guarantees residents a constitutional right to privacy; as vague as that may be. Other states with similar provisions include Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina, and Washington. The United States Constitution does NOT have any such provision, but the US Supreme Court has ruled that some level of implicit privacy rights are provided by the first, third, fourth, fifth, and ninth amendments. And that’s even more unclear.  

In Alaska, the first major judicial case to challenge the constitution’s privacy clause was none other than Ravin vs. State in 1975. In this milestone case, the Alaska Supreme Court found privacy in the home to be “of the highest importance and the most deserving of constitutional protection,” and it found the state’s case for regulating the personal use of small amounts of cannabis to be “less than compelling.” 

As expected, that ruling has been met with resistance over the years. Cannabis spent decades in a sort of quasi-legal limbo, with no one really knowing what’s permitted and what isn’t. Overall, the idea that constitutional rights protect personal possession, use, and cultivation of cannabis in Alaska, has held strong in most supreme court cases.  

In general, Alaska’s constitutional protections are broader than what is offered by the federal constitution. Take for example, privacy in the context of searches and seizures, which by definition, violate one’s privacy to an extent. The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that the state “could not use as evidence a recording, made without a warrant, of a conversation between the defendant and an informant who possessed a wireless transmitter,” although the US Supreme Court deemed these types of conversations as admissible evidence.  

What happened, why was cannabis recriminalized?  

As lax as Alaska’s cannabis laws have been, it’s no surprise that people began to abuse the personal use provisions in the state’s constitution. Remember that ‘right to privacy’ laws are not absolute and can vary greatly based on if the current lawmakers believe cannabis to be a threat to public safety. If so, “privacy” protections can be overturned in certain scenarios. 

Throughout the 1980s, many arrests of largescale growers occurred throughout the state. In 1989, Alaska State Troopers made a notable bust in Matanuska Valley where they seized 3,000 plants that were part of four different grow ops within the county. A few months later, Wasilla was a location of interest, as troopers confiscated 2006 plants growing in a residence owned by then 45-year-old Thomas Wyatt. By the end of the year, a campaign to prohibit the use of cannabis began making the rounds.  

In November of 1990, Measure 2, a voter initiative, passed, making it illegal to possess cannabis anywhere – on public or private property. If someone was caught with even a small amount, they were looking at up to 90 days in jail and $1,000 in fines, although it was uncommon for such harsh sentences to be handed out.  

This decision has been challenged in court numerous times and cannabis has been recriminalized and re-decriminalized a handful of times over the last few decades. Look at the 2003 case, Noy vs. State. Similar to the 1975 case, David S. Noy was arrested and convicted by a jury of possessing less than 8 ounces of cannabis. But, because of Ravin’s case, the Alaska Court of Appeals overturned Noy’s conviction and dismantled the part of the law that criminalized personal use of cannabis on private property.  

In 2006, cannabis was again prohibited, this time via a measure pushed by then-Governor, Frank Murkowski. Murkowski made possession of under one ounce a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail, and possession of one to four ounces a misdemeanor carrying a term of up to one year in jail. This was probably the strictest point in Alaska’s history, as far as cannabis legislation goes, and the law remained this way until recreational was legalized in 2014.  

What are the laws, currently?  

Today, Alaska is one of the more lenient states when it comes to cannabis regulation, even when compared to other fully legalized states. Alaska residents over 21 years of age can consume pot in their homes, possess it in their car or on their person, and grow up to six plants per residence. The maximum amount of raw flower you can have is one ounce. So, no more fear of getting pulled over for some frivolous nonsense and getting arrested.  

You still cannot toke in public. According to Cynthia Franklin, director of Alaska’s liquor control board, “People will not be legally lighting up in the park anytime soon. Should someone feel compelled to celebrate the occasion in public, they’re looking at a $100 fine.” And that’s where they decided to keep the hundred-dollar fine that was instated decades ago.  

You also cannot smoke any pot within the state or national parks. Peter Christian, spokesman for the National Park Service, said that if you’re caught with weed on public lands, you could face a federal citation. Within Denali National Park and Preserve, Christian said there were no arrests made in 2020, but he did issue 14 verbal warnings.  

In 2018, the State of Alaska approved measures to allow on-site consumption in properly licensed retail stores. They have yet to set up any “consumption lounges” as the law initially intended, but so far, one dispensary has made it through the proper licensing channels to allow smoking on-site: Good Titrations. This dispensary is located in Fairbanks, and it has a lounge area with a coffee bar where you can purchase up to one gram of flower for immediate consumption.  

Final Thoughts on Cannabis in Alaska

Alaska may be the last frontier, but it was one of the first states in the country to legalize cannabis use. Because their state constitution is so much more all-encompassing than our federal one, I believe we could all stand to learn a thing or two from Alaska and their wild ride to full cannabis liberalization.

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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.