By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - A measure that could make Alaska the third U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana use after Colorado and Washington has enough valid signatures to be put before voters in August, state officials said on Tuesday.
If voted into law, the Alaska initiative would allow adults aged 21 and older to possess up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana and grow up to six pot plants, and would pave the way for creation of a system to tax and regulate pot sales.
"The initiative has met the state requirement for signatures," said Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska's Division of Elections. "It's a matter now of officially getting the certification documents signed by the lieutenant governor."
The push to legalize recreational pot use in Alaska, which is among 20 states that already allow medical marijuana, is part of a broader state-by-state effort to end prohibition of the drug. Activists in Oregon are also gathering signatures to put a legalization measure on the 2014 ballot in that state.
While pot remains a banned narcotic under federal law, the Obama administration has said it will give individual states leeway to permit its recreational use. Recreational pot stores opened their doors last month in Colorado and are months away from beginning operations in Washington state.
Of roughly 46,000 signatures submitted by pot campaigners in Alaska to qualify for the ballot, 31,593 have been verified, more than the 30,169 required, Fenumiai said, adding that some 6,000 more signatures have yet to be reviewed.
The signatures have also met a geographic diversity requirement to qualify for the August 19 primary election ballot.
Alaska state law requires that initiatives appear on primary election ballots in the state.
LEGAL GRAY ZONE
Recreational use of marijuana currently exists in a legal gray area in libertarian-minded Alaska. The state supreme court ruled in 1975 that individuals have a constitutional right to possess modest quantities of the drug at home, on privacy grounds. Pot remains illegal under state statute, however.
In addition to legalizing marijuana possession, the Alaska measure would require the state to create rules for regulating recreational-use pot stores within nine months of enactment.
If passed, it would also impose a $50-per-ounce tax on marijuana at the wholesale level to bring in revenue to the state.
Backers of marijuana legalization hailed the Alaska news as another milestone in a state-by-state effort to end prohibition of the drug, which has gained momentum from the successful legalization efforts in Washington state and Colorado.
"Voters are quickly coming to realize that marijuana is not nearly as harmful as they were once led to believe," said Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert, whose group is a major player in marijuana legalization efforts.
The group plans to fund similar ballot efforts in 2016 in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada, and is lobbying lawmakers in a handful of states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, in hopes of passing similar measures legislatively.
Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his group hopes to mount an organized campaign against Alaska legalization in the coming months.
"There is no formal opposition in Alaska just yet, but SAM has been approached by Alaskan activists who don't want to see the safety problems and burdensome government regulation that would come with legalization," Sabet said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)