Saturday, November 8, 2014

"A little reefer by the woodstove:" A Short History of Marijuana in Alaska

Courtesy of CannabisCulture magazine.
In last week's midterm elections, Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, making theirs the fourth US state in two years to legalize recreational cannabis use. Oregon became the third earlier Tuesday night, joining Colorado and Washington, states that legalized in 2012. Add in marijuana's quasi-legal status in California, and Alaska's vote brought legal weed to the entire West Coast of the United States (perhaps to the chagrin of oft-busted bud growers in Canada's B.C.).

In an age of near-universal public support for some kind of cannabis legalization, it may not seem very surprising that Alaskans voted to legalize weed by a fairly wide margin. I mean, the stuff had pretty much been legal in the country's northernmost reaches since 1975, when the Alaskan Supreme Court ruled that personal cultivation and consumption of marijuana in the home was protected under the state constitution's right-to-privacy article [1]. Under that ruling - which made marijuana laws in staunchly conservative Alaska the most liberal in the country by far - Alaskans could possess up to four ounces of cannabis and grow up to 25 plants in their home. When that ruling was challenged by a 1991 initiative that re-criminalized cannabis, barely anything changed [2]. State troopers refused to enforce it, with some even agreeing that they'd rather try to take a man's gun than his stash of weed.

Yes, you read that right: In Alaska, a state where people love (and actually need) their guns more than they do in Texas, state troopers in the 1990s preferred grabbing guns instead of ganja. Alaskans further undermined the '91 law when they legalized medical cannabis via a ballot initiative in 1998.

Alaska is a cold, unforgiving place, populated by people who, as their state constitution's privacy article suggests, value their individual liberties above most everything else. It's safe to say that telling people what they can and cannot do in a state where nature's laws undoubtedly govern more effectively than man's has never been popular. In such a harsh environment marked by half-years of total darkness, it's also completely understandable why Alaskans have some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the country (see footnote #1 and the map to the right, where as of 2008 the percentage of monthly marijuana users in Alaska was surpassed only in three other states and Washington, D.C.).

But when we discuss Alaskans' historic relationship with cannabis in a purely political or social context, we gloss over one of the most fascinating and important elements of the story: namely, how did a plant that thrives in the most sun-drenched parts of the world come to find a happy home so close to the Arctic Circle?