(Adds comments from state official, marijuana opponent)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
Jan 8 (Reuters) - A push to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Alaska took a step forward on Wednesday as backers announced they had submitted 45,000 signatures in support of their cause, more than enough to put the matter to voters later this year.
If the measure succeeds in getting on the ballot and is approved by voters, Alaska could become the third U.S. state to legalize recreational pot use after Colorado and Washington, where voters opted to permit the drug in 2012.
The Alaska initiative would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce (28 grams) of pot and grow up to six marijuana plants, and would require the state to create rules for regulating recreational-use pot stores within nine months of enactment.
It would also impose a $50-per-ounce tax on marijuana at the wholesale level to bring in revenue to the state.
"Marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that has made criminals out of law-abiding Alaskans and Americans for far too long," said Tim Hinterberger, a co-sponsor of the initiative and a professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The push to legalize recreational-use pot in Alaska, which is among 20 U.S. states that already allow medical marijuana, is part of a broader state-by-state effort to end prohibition of the drug drawing on successful legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington state.
While pot remains a banned narcotic under federal law, the Obama administration has said it will give individual states leeway to permit recreational use. Recreational pot stores opened their doors this month in Colorado and are months away from beginning operations in Washington state.
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.
EFFORTS IN OTHER STATES
In Alaska, if enough of the submitted signatures are validated - roughly 30,000 are needed - the legalization measure will be eligible to go before Alaska voters in a primary election in August. State law requires that initiatives appear on primary election ballots.
Alaska elections officials have received the signatures and were starting the process of counting them and will then verify that they meet geographic diversity criteria, said Gail Fenumiai, director of the state's Division of Elections. That process typically takes about 50 days.
The Alaska submission comes as activists in Oregon are also gathering signatures to put a legalization measure on the 2014 ballot.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a major player in marijuana legalization efforts, plans to fund similar efforts in 2016 in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada, said spokesman Mason Tvert.
Legalization opponents said they plan to mount an organized effort against the proposed Alaska measure - something that the successful legalization efforts in Washington state and Colorado did not face.
"This initiative is about creating a new industry and a lot of new government regulations around marijuana," said Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes pot legalization. "There will be an opposition campaign in Alaska." (Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)