Yes, you read that headline right. In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in Ravin v. State that the right to possess, cultivate and consume small amounts of marijuana in the home was protected under the state Constitution's right to privacy.
As you might imagine, that ruling has faced some opposition over the years, and has been placed into legal limbo from time to time due to various ballot and legislative challenges. But Alaska courts have repeatedly and consistently upheld the notion that Constitutional privacy protections cover the personal possession, cultivation and use of marijuana in Alaska.
"Alaskans can currently lawfully possess up to four ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use, but still risk prosecution under existing state and federal statutes," concludes University of Alaska law professor Jason Brandeis in an exhaustive history of Alaska marijuana law (which makes for a pretty interesting read if you're into such things). You could still technically be charged with marijuana possession if caught with less than four ounces in your home, but a court would essentially have to throw the charge out.
This puts Alaska in a unique position: in some respects its marijuana laws are more liberal than those in the Netherlands, which outlaw personal cultivation completely. While all eyes are on Colorado and Washington to see how those experiments with legal marijuana turn out, Alaska, with 39 years of (admittedly complicated) legalization history is largely overlooked: you'd think that forces on both sides of the national marijuana debate would be looking to Alaska for answers and arguments. Why aren't they?
Part of it is that Alaska is just weird. Extrapolating lessons from one state to the rest of the country is a fraught exercise in the best circumstances, and all the more so when the state in question is geographically remote and sparsely populated.
In addition, the history of marijuana law in Alaska is incredibly complicated. Many Alaskans aren't even sure of where the law stands. "It all has been very confusing for people," says Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization group Project SAM. Supporters of Alaska's ballot initiative to fully legalize marijuana agree: the laws "have become needlessly confusing and inconsistently enforced," according to a statement by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska.
But this confusion aside, it is worth noting that marijuana use rates in Alaska are consistently higher than they are elsewhere in the U.S, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Interestingly, the difference between Alaska and the rest of the U.S. is sharpest among adults: Alaska teens and young adults have about a 30 percent higher marijuana use rate than their counterparts in the rest of the country. But older Alaska adults, age 26+, are a little more than twice as likely to regularly consume marijuana.
On the other hand, overall drug dependence in actually slightly lower in Alaska than elsewhere, particularly among adults. Unfortunately, the NSDUH state-level data doesn't break out marijuana dependence separately. But one explanation for the lower dependency rate would be that Alaskans are substituting marijuana for more habit-forming drugs, like heroin or methamphetamines.
It's impossible to attribute these numbers to Alaska's legal framework - after all, we don't know what marijuana use in Alaska would look like if Ravin had never existed. And there are several other states with overall marijuana use rates similar to Alaska's. Moreover, a number of studies have found little or no link between liberalized marijuana laws and increased rates of use.
Even more important than use rates, though, are social outcomes - education, public health, safety, etc. And on a barrage of measures, Alaska looks more or less like the rest of the U.S. It's ranked 26th among states on overall bachelor's degree attainment, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. It has a lower rate of disability than the U.S. average. Alaska's highway fatality rate is lower than the U.S. average too.
Economically speaking, Alaska's poverty and SNAP uptake rates are considerably lower than the national average, while per-capita GDP and household income are among the highest in the nation - thanks, in no small part, to the state's oil and gas industry.
In short, Alaskans use marijuana twice as much as Americans elsewhere, but so far the sky hasn't fallen.
None of this is to suggest that the legal status of weed in the state is responsible - or not - for any of these outcomes. But opponents of legalization often discuss the issue in Manichean terms, as if the slightest departure from full prohibition would lead inevitably to a stoner dystopia, with a nation of drug-addled high school dropouts dwelling in basements where the air hangs thick with the stench of patchouli, stale bongwater, and regret.
Alaska's complicated history with marijuana legalization suggests that's far from the truth.
Update: An earlier version of this article imprecisely stated that the possession of up to 25 marijuana plants was protected under Alaska law. In fact there is no specific statute addressing the possession of up to 25 plants, making the legal situation murky. As you may have gathered, Alaska marijuana law is complicated.