By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - A ballot initiative that could make Alaska the third U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana will go before voters in a general election in November rather than in August as previously scheduled, officials said on Monday.
The move means that a broader swath of the public is likely to vote on the issue than if it had gone before voters as scheduled during a state primary election in August.
Alaska ballot initiatives typically go before voters in primary elections. But a lengthier-than-normal state legislative session this year forced the change because, under state rules, initiatives must go to voters no less than 120 days after the end of a session.
Passage of the marijuana initiative would permit adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana for private personal use and to grow as many as six cannabis plants for their own consumption.
It would also chart a course for state-regulated commercial sales of pot in a framework similar to systems established by Colorado and Washington state after voters in those states became the first to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012.
"The date of the election is a non-issue for us because we know that Alaska voters support regulating marijuana like alcohol by a wide margin under either scenario," said marijuana campaign spokesman Taylor Bickford. "We are confident Ballot Measure 2 will prevail in November."
But Deborah Williams, the former head of the Alaska Democratic Party and a spokeswoman for the newly formed anti-legalization group "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No On 2," said the delay was welcome.
"Every additional week that we have to learn from Colorado's experience we think is very important for Alaskans and will result in an increasing number of no votes on this legislation," she said.
A Public Policy Polling Survey of 850 registered Alaska voters showed that 55 percent supported legalizing recreational marijuana in a taxed and regulated system, while 39 percent were opposed. The survey, conducted in January, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent.
The office of the Alaska lieutenant governor, in announcing the change, said that two other initiatives would also be pushed back to the November ballot, including one seeking to raise the state's minimum wage to $9.75 per hour by 2016 from $7.75 currently, which is 50 cents over the federal minimum.
A measure to provide for protection of Bristol Bay wild salmon was also pushed back to November, which features races for the governor and U.S. Senate.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Editing by Eric M. Johnson, Cynthia Johnston and Edwina Gibbs)