JUNEAU -- The debate over recriminalizing pot has nerves on edge at the Capitol.
Eagle River Sen. Fred Dyson, whose committee held a hearing on the issue Wednesday, said he wanted an apology for what he called nasty phone calls from people against a bill designed to make pot illegal again.
The crux of Wednesday's debate was whether marijuana is dangerous enough for government to punish its users or if adult Alaskans should keep their right to smoke it in the privacy of their homes.
It's an issue with passionate views on both sides, and it generated tension. Fairbanks Sen. Gary Wilken sharply criticized the head of the state public defenders agency for testifying against the bill in her official position.
"I'm really disappointed in your testimony today. ... I'm shocked," the Fairbanks Republican told Barbara Brink, director of the agency.
The Senate Health and Social Services Committee is holding a series of hearings on Gov. Frank Murkowski's attempt to overrule state court rulings that adult Alaskans have the right to possess up to four ounces of marijuana for personal use in their homes. The bill would also make it much easier to prosecute pot possession as a felony.
The Alaska Supreme Court in September let stand a lower court ruling that at-home adult possession of pot was protected under the strong right to privacy from government interference that is protected under the state constitution.
Murkowski wants the Legislature to pass his Senate Bill 74, which would say lawmakers want marijuana illegal again. That wouldn't be enough to trump the court rulings that pot is protected under the onstitution.
But the governor's strategy is to introduce evidence at the legislative hearings about the harms of pot. That, his aides said, would create a "legislative record" to show the courts that the state has an overriding interest in making all marijuana use illegal in Alaska.
Wednesday's hearing had testimony from a White House drug control specialist and a California psychologist who said marijuana is addictive and damaging both physically and mentally to its users.
Several bill opponents disputed those assertions and argued that good citizens shouldn't get locked up for recreational pot use in their own homes.
Legislators asked for more detail on the studies. But much of the debate is liable to boil down to which experts lawmakers choose to believe.
Wilken said he wanted to hear the rest of the testimony but is already a supporter of the bill. He said in an interview after the hearing that he thinks there's enough evidence of pot's harm.
Dyson charged at the hearing that some of the bill's opponents went too far in calls to his legislative office.
"They've been plugging up our phone lines," Dyson said.
He said callers said they were urged to call in by someone out of state who was paid to do so. Some callers were "nasty and rude" to his staff, Dyson said, so whoever is organizing the effort should apologize.
Former state corrections official Bill Parker said later that his group, Alaskans for Marijuana Regulation and Control, organized a push to get constituents of the committee members to call up and oppose the bill. He said he told Dyson he was sorry if any of them were rude.
"I think getting your constituents to call their legislators is still fair," said Parker, who is also a former Anchorage legislator. "I think it is desirable."
The hearing began with testimony from David Murray, special assistant in the White House office of drug control policy. He asserted that there are more and more medical studies on the dangers of pot.
He said pot is much stronger than in the past, and people are using it at a younger age. It causes health problems, memory loss and emotional changes, and can put people at greater risk of psychotic episodes, he said.
"Young people are particularly susceptible to the things we are seeing," Murray said.
Opponents said they agree that marijuana ought to be illegal for children. But adults, several said, have the right to privacy in their homes and the state should have better things to spend money on then jailing them.
"Please don't criminalize my friends," testified Mako Haggerty of Homer. "They are (good) parents, hard workers and contributing members of our community."
Brink said she's read some of the research and there are problems with the conclusions in the bill. For example, she said, the bill declares there is evidence marijuana "has addictive properties similar to heroin."
Brink also said the bill harshly tightens penalties for marijuana possession when there's evidence that putting people in jail doesn't reduce its use.
She said the bill would make it a class B felony -- punishable by at least a year in jail -- to deliver any amount of marijuana to someone under 21.
That could apply to a 16-year-old passing a joint to a 20-year-old, she said.
The bill would also make possession of more than four ounces a felony offense.
Wilken was upset that Brink said she was testifying on the bill as director of the state public defender's agency, and not just on her own behalf.
"I would think, in your position, that you of all people should be neutral on these issues," Wilken said.