Marijuana legalization: How Colorado is following Alaska's smoke trail

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When the final tally rang on election night, hundreds of thousands of voters in Colorado and Washington rejoiced at the passing of their respective marijuana bills. In these states, the people had spoken: legalize it. Amid the hazy celebrations, however, one acknowledgement was conspicuously absent. Alaska had actually legalized marijuana first. Sort of.

Since 1975, Alaska has inhabited an enforcement purgatory in which marijuana users have carved out their own sets of rules. Some of them hold up, while others are the unfortunate result of oft-repeated mantras that have no legal authority whatsoever.

Alaska's landmark marijuana case, 1975's Ravin v. Alaska, questioned the state's interpretation of an individual's right to privacy as defined in both the U.S. and Alaska constitutions. Essentially, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that it is within an individual's right to possess less than four ounces of cured marijuana, or less than 25 plants, in a private residence -- without interference from state law enforcement. This is similar to Colorado's Amendment 64 in spirit, but the comparison is muddied by blurry legal terminology.

According to NORML, Alaska's "four ounces or less" is not classified as any kind of punishable offense. In Colorado, possession of one ounce for personal use, or the gifting of one ounce or less, carries, by law, no penalty; Coloradans are also allowed up to six plants for cultivation. The main difference is that in Colorado, the citizens voted for this. In Alaska, the law was decided by the state supreme court, and the laws have been left deliberately open to interpretation.

There are other specific differences, too. In Colorado, one of the main regulatory measures stipulates that only persons 21 or older are allowed to possess marijuana of any kind -- cured or in cultivation. In Alaska, individuals need only be eighteen or older.

Then again, Colorado has shown a level of maturity in at least trying to implement across-the-board regulatory measures. Throughout the state, there are some who find Amendment 64 too restrictive, and some who feel the regulations aren't strict enough. But look at the alternative: Alaska decriminalized possession of marijuana in the home 37 years ago but has not taken any other steps toward developing a comprehensive and consistent relationship with marijuana. The result is a veritable "Wild West" of a black market in a massive state, with no real ability to monitor how much marijuana is being produced and passed around Alaska and beyond.

Colorado and Washington may be just a little late coming to the party. But since arriving, their willingness to take a realistic look at marijuana's potential role in a culture and an economy launched these states far past Alaska.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana tourism recommended by task force -- but can rules prevent smurfing?"

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