No marijuana-possession prisoners in Alaska, state officials say

marijuana products
Legal marijuana products are seen on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. Eight years after Alaskan voted to legalize recreational marijuana, the state of Alaska has no one in prison for simple marijuana possession. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The state of Alaska, which voted to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2014, has no one in prison for simple marijuana possession, officials with the Alaska Department of Corrections and the office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, President Joe Biden said he would pardon thousands of people in federal prison for simple marijuana charges, and he urged state governors to follow suit.

“In Alaska, we do not have anyone in jail for simple possession of marijuana,” a spokesperson for the office of the governor said by email when asked about the president’s planned action.

“As to the federal action, no executive clemency actions have been taken yet, so it is difficult to comment until we see the actual action take place,” they said.

Betsey Holley, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Corrections, said only one person is in prison here for sixth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance — that’s a class B misdemeanor occasionally used for marijuana crimes — “but it’s marijuana plus another charge, so not just marijuana,” she said. 

In Alaska, anyone at least 21 years old can possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use, and a retail store can’t sell more than an ounce per day to an individual. Licensed marijuana employees can carry more than an ounce in the course of their work.

Home-growing marijuana is also legal in Alaska, with state law allowing up to six plants per person in a house, up to a maximum of 12.

Driving under the influence of marijuana remains a crime, as does consuming marijuana in public.   

Progressive policymakers have frequently criticized marijuana-possession prosecution as more harmful than helpful in combating crime. Multiple large-scale studies have found nonwhite people more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than white people. 

In one 2020 report, the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that Black Americans were 3.7 times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than white people were.

“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a prepared statement Thursday. 

“Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” he said.

In February, the Alaska Department of Public Safety estimated about 8,500 people have records that include sixth-degree controlled-substance misconduct convictions or similar municipal ordinances likely to involve marijuana.

Earlier this year, the Alaska House of Representatives voted 30-8 in favor of legislation to seal those records from public inspection. 

Speaking in favor of the bill, lawmakers said it was necessary in order to prevent Alaskans from losing housing or employment because of actions that are now legal. 

Several other states have passed legislation making it easier to have prior marijuana-possession crimes sealed or expunged from public databases.

The Alaska bill also would have decreased the penalty for underage (but above 18) marijuana possession to match the penalty for underage alcohol possession.

Dunleavy, via his campaign Twitter account, said he supported lawmakers’ work, but the bill failed to pass the state Senate before the end of the legislative session.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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