A trial over a charge for marijuana possession took place in Alaska in 2003, where the defendant argued that he had a constitutional right to possess marijuana despite laws in place–Noy v. State.

David Noy was arrested for smoking marijuana at a barbecue at his North Pole home after police smelled marijuana and investigated. Noy’s home was found to contain several ounces of marijuana as well as 5 immature plants, but no scales or other evidence of commercial conduct. Noy was prosecuted and convicted of marijuana possession under a 1990 statute criminalizing any amount of marijuana.

Noy appealed the decision, and in Noy v. State (2003) Noy’s counsel argued that Noy’s actions were protected by the privacy provision of the Alaskan constitution. The court agreed: according to the state constitution, Alaskan citizens have a right to possess less than four ounces of marijuana in their home for personal use.

The court found that statue AS 11.71.060(a)(1), which made illegal using, displaying, or possessing any amount of marijuana, criminalized conduct that the Alaska Supreme Court had declared protected under article I, section 22 of the Alaska constitution. This finding was based in main upon an amendment to the state constitution made in 1972.

The amendment states, “The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed.   The legislature shall implement this section.” (Article I, section 22).

In Ravin v. State (1975), the constitution was found to protect possession and ingestion of marijuana for personal use in one’s home in a purely personal, non-commercial context. In Ravin, the privacy protection extended to marijuana could only be overturned if the state could show that the intrusion into people’s privacy bore “a close and substantial relationship to a legitimate government interest,” i.e. public health or welfare would suffer without prohibition of private possession of marijuana. The court found that in Ravin such an interest had been demonstrated in the case of drivers, youth, buyers and sellers, and use in public places, but not for adults in general.

In 1982, the Alaskan legislature changed the law dealing with marijuana from Title 17 to Title 11 and dropped the civil fine for possession for personal use in a non-public place, alligning the law with Ravin. In 1990, however, Alaskan voters approved a ballot (citing variously as 51 and 55% majority) that amended AS 11.71 subsections and made possession illegal. Noy was charged under this 1990 law.

To decide Noy, the court sought to answer if the law under which Noy was charged was unconstitutional, in which case it would be void.

Important to the courts decision was the process by which Statute 11.71 was enacted: the ballot. The court sought to answer whether Alaskans can enact legislation by ballot. The court found that Alaskans could, according to Article XII sec. 11 of the Alaska constitution, which reads that through the ballot Alaskans may exercise “the law-making powers assigned to the legislature” (subject to the limitations in Article XI), but, just like legislative action, the initiative process must not violate the constitution. Statute 11.71 did violate the constitution in part, and so, the court found, the statute must be limited to preserve its constitutionality. The statute was to return to its pre-1990 version in order to conform to the constitution.

Therefore, the court found that marijuana possession by adults in their home for personal use (as in Ravin) remained constitutional, entitling Noy to a new trial. The original conviction was reversed and Noy was granted a new trial, wherein he could possibly be re-convicted if he was found to possess more than four ounces of marijuana (the amount not protected by the constitution).

By Day Blakely Donaldson