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Alaska: House passes marijuana bill

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - In a surprise vote Friday, the Alaska House passed a bill that would both recriminalize marijuana possession and make it tougher to by the ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine.

The House last month rejected the conference committee's marijuana.m.eth bill, but voted 21-17 Friday night to rescind that action.

The bill went on to pass without debate 24-14.

"I don't think it was a reversal, I think it was an evolution toward good policy," said Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who sponsored the methamphetamine bill.

The Senate last month accepted the conference committee report, meaning the bill now goes to Gov. Frank Murkowski to sign into law.

In originally rejecting the bill, many House members said they supported the methamphetamine provisions, which would have restricted the sale of many over-the-counter medicines that are used in making the drug. However, they objected to the marijuana provisions being added without having enough committee hearings in the House.

The Senate tacked on the marijuana provisions, which Murkowski had introduced last year and called "must-pass" legislation.

Murkowski is seeking to overturn a long-standing decision in which the Alaska Supreme Court ruled it was legal for Alaskans to possess small amounts of marijuana in their homes for personal use.

The bill lists a number of findings that say marijuana is a more potent and dangerous drug than it was 30 years ago, which the governor hopes will give the court a basis to overturn the decision.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said he believed the only reason the vote was reversed was because of pressure on lawmakers by the governor's office for Murkowski's priority bill.

"To me, this shows how distorted this process has become," Berkowitz said. "If I wake up in the morning and there's snow on the ground, I don't have to see the snow falling to know that it has snowed. It's what you call circumstantial evidence."

"Obviously we are pleased. The governor worked real hard on this, it's something he believes in. It's a good day for Alaska," said Kevin Jardell, the governor's legislative liaison.

In response to House minority leaders accusations that the governor pressured lawmakers into voting for the bill, he said, "That's insulting to the legislators and the institution."

However, House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said he did not believe the votes changed specifically due to pressure from the governor's office.

"I think the governor certainly has petitioned members to change their vote," Harris said. "I think it's mainly because a number of members voted no earlier because of the process. The Senate put two bills together and so a number of our members weren't happy with that process and now I think have softened their feelings a little bit and aren't nearly as angry about that."

American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska Director Michael Macleod-Ball sent a letter to Attorney General David Marquez Friday saying the ACLU would sue for injunctive relief if the bill becomes law.

"Plain and simple, you are attempting to further restrict the right to privacy enjoyed by all Alaskans by enacting the marijuana provisions of (the bill)," Macleod-Ball wrote.

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The bill is House Bill 149.