Pubdate: Fri, 26 Nov 1999
Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Copyright: 1999 The Anchorage Daily News
Author: Larry Campbell, Daily News Reporter 


This is what Don Quixote would look like if he lived in the 20th century
and smoked dope. Stocky, wispy blond hair tied in a ponytail, clean shaven,
white shirt with his blue necktie hanging loose. A bottle of single malt
scotch on the desk.

This is H. Thompson Prentzel III, alias Harold T. Prentzel, alias Tom
Prentzel. Depending on whom you talk to, he's a champion for Alaskans'
privacy rights to smoke marijuana or just another dope felon.

Prentzel is the author and co-sponsor of the Drug Abuse Medicalization, or
D.A.M., initiative. His is one of two proposed initiatives making the
rounds to free Alaska from its quarter-century-long legal limbo over who
can use weed and when. Right now the issue is pretty confusing.

Prentzel's initiative would make things simple: Possession up to 4 ounces
by an adult in the home would be OK. Medical use would be OK too. And
people in jail for nonviolent marijuana offenses would be freed to seek
help for their addictions.

But having an idea is one thing. Getting people to sign the petition is
another. Last year, the effort gathered little more than 8,000 signatures,
only a third of what was needed to get the question on the ballot. Now he
has until June 17 to get enough signatures to get the question on the
November 2000 ballot. And it's hard, as Prentzel is finding out again this

"Yeah, one of my volunteers just landed in jail last week, but I don't want
to talk about that," he said Wednesday in his downtown office. "I know, it
feels like I'm doing this all myself. And I'm not too smart when it comes
to organizing people. I need some help."

A second measure, circulated by Libertarian Party activists, also is aimed
at next November's election. Known as 99HEMP, this initiative is almost
identical to Prentzel's, except it calls for marijuana to be regulated as
alcohol is. It also calls for the state to challenge federal laws that
would conflict with it and calls for an advisory panel to examine
restitution possibilities for people convicted of marijuana-related crimes.
The deadline for getting enough signatures is June 24.

Alaska's dope history is fairly schizophrenic. In 1975, the state Supreme
Court said we could smoke marijuana at home, based on the Alaska
Constitution's strong privacy protections. That same year, the Alaska
Legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts. In 1990 voters
passed a ballot initiative trying to reverse all that. Three years later a
Superior Court judge said the ballot initiative was unconstitutional. Last
year, voters approved another initiative saying people who need it for
medical purposes can use a little bit. This year the Legislature put rules
on that initiative. And the federal government has always said dope is just
plain illegal.

Nowadays, most state law enforcement agencies are likely to just take
people's small stash and let them go unless they have a greenhouse
operation going.

Enter Prentzel, a 41-year-old laborer and average Alaskan - or at least the
average Alaskan from two decades ago. He likes to drink, smoke and chase
women. He likes to party into the night and next morning. The freedom to do
that is what drew him to the Last Frontier and Fairbanks in 1984.

"I'd start out on Two Street (2nd Avenue), hitting the bars, then get a
bunch of friends together and go watch the sun go down, then come back up,"
he said. "Then, about 10 minutes to 5 (a.m.), hit the liquor stores.

"Those were the days. You just can't do that anymore."

In 1992 he was growing dope in the Fairbanks area ATCO trailer he called
home. "I'm a fiscal conservative," he said of his scores of plants. "I'm
not going to pay premium prices when I can grow what I need."

Two cops knocked on the door. The visit resulted in a federal marijuana
conviction that sent him to penitentiaries in the Lower 48 for nearly two

Since then there have been more arrests, for marijuana possession and
drunken driving. He's beat some, done jail time for others. Now he's just
trying to get D.A.M. on the ballot again.

Anchorage attorney Phillip Weidner admires Prentzel's perseverance. Until
recently, Weidner had the distinction of being the only attorney in the
state to make a financial donation to the cause.

"He's devoted to achieving a goal that is in the best interests of the
citizens of the state of Alaska," Weidner said. "It would be alleviating a
needless waste of state resources by prosecuting people for simply using

"The senseless incarceration of people for this is a sad reflection on the
political nature of our laws and the persecution of certain groups under
the guise of justice."

Still, Pretzel battles pretty much on his own right now. What he said he
needs is a boss, someone to run the campaign while he just gathers
signatures. He said he's good at that, even though he's finding it nearly
impossible to get into shopping malls. And he's run afoul of police at
University of Alaska campuses here and in Fairbanks. UAA kicked him off in

And in Fairbanks: "If you see Mr. Prentzel, would you please let him know
I'm looking for him," UAF Police Chief Terry Vrabec told a reporter earlier
this week.

There are certain people in this world who just can't seem to cross paths
with a cop peacefully. They are the ones who say they were just having fun
and not hurting anyone as the handcuffs click. Most of them take their
punishment and go away. They stay low, try to avoid attention.

That's Prentzel, until it comes to the initiative petition.

"I guess I'm just feisty," he said, allowing himself a little grin, then
turning serious. "I'm not going to quit. We're talking about basic privacy
rights here. And when you know you have the ability to right a wrong, you
do something about it. It's an obligation."

State Sen. Loren Leman was chief sponsor of the law approved earlier this
year that added more stringent rules to the 1998 medical marijuana measure.
He was a little dismayed earlier this week to hear that full legalization
is still being pursued.

"I did think that last spring we'd laid this issue to rest for some time,"
he said.

Leman thinks the laws against open use of the drug are fine as they are
now. He'd rather not see a return to late 1970s and '80s.

"Of course, anyone has the right to petition," Leman said. "But any time
you're trying to build a consensus so you can get these kinds of things
through, if you're someone on the fringe, it's going to be tougher."

On the fringe. Prentzel said he's been described that way before. Doesn't
matter to him.

"This is what I do well," he said.
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