Irwin Ravin, a Newark-born attorney who became one of the nation’s key advocates for legalizing marijuana, died of a heart attack April 11 in an Anchorage, Alaska, hospital. He was 70 years old.
A graduate of Rutgers University and an Army veteran, Ravin later left a turbulent Newark to chart a new course in the freewheeling 49th state.
For a time he was the public defender in the city of Ketchikan and a construction worker on the Alaskan oil pipeline in Prudhoe Bay.
In the early 1970s, Ravin made himself a test case for the cause of legal marijuana, purposely driving with a small amount of the banned substance in his pocket. It was discovered by police when they stopped him for driving with a broken tail light.
Ravin challenged his arrest as a violation of privacy rights, and in 1975, the state’s Supreme Court agreed, establishing the right of Alaskans to smoke marijuana in their own homes, as well as their right to privacy in other spheres.
“He was a very free-thinking liberal,” said his sister, Deena Oksenhorn, who, along with her husband Michael, owns Julius Oksenhorn Jewelers in Millburn.
She recalled her older brother growing his own marijuana plants when he was a 16-year-old in Hillside.
“He thought everybody should have a choice about whether or not to smoke it, and he thought he would have his best shot fighting the state of Alaska for freedom of choice,” Oksenhorn said. “He won, and he became a Paul Bunyan, a folk hero up there.”
But, she added quickly, “He was an all-around person, not just a pot-grower.”
Born in 1939, Ravin grew up in Hillside, and graduated from Rutgers and New York University Law School.
He served in the United States Army and worked as a clerk at his family’s Newark law firm, Ravin and Ravin, until civil unrest erupted in the city in 1967.
Opting for a more secure environment for his wife and two small boys, he moved his family to Fairbanks, where he set up a law practice.
Ravin eventually bought land in the town of Homer. “He called it his little corner of the world,” Oksenhorn said.
Homer was known as the “halibut capital of the word” until the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground off its coast in 1989, spilling more than 10 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
In 1990, Ravin looked back on his court victory in an interview with the Homer News, which memorialized him this week as “an Alaska icon.”
“Marijuana has never been an issue for me,” he said. “The fight was always for privacy. Our territory and now state has traditionally been the home of people who prize their individuality and who have chosen to achieve a measure of control over their own lifestyles, which is now virtually unattainable in many of our sister states.”
His two sons, Dean and Jules, live communally with their wives and children in a house on their father’s land in Homer.
Thirteen years ago, Ravin became the father of a daughter named Mischa. As a single parent he stopped practicing law and worked the flexible hours of a taxi driver “so he could become a full-time father,” said Oksenhorn. “He loved driving a cab. He was a real people person.”
Off hours, Ravin taught bridge and backgammon, and acted in local Shakespeare productions, she said.
When it came to Judaism, “Irwin was traditional. He left New Jersey only after he finished saying a year of Kaddish for our father, Julius,” his sister said.
Ravin was buried in Homer on April 15.
“We had to get people with jackhammers to dig his grave in the frozen ground,” said Oksenhorn, who conducted the funeral service. “I was the rabbi. We couldn’t get a rabbi to come to Homer, so I got the prayers off the Internet. It was very meaningful.”
In addition to Oksenhorn, his sons and his daughter, Ravin is survived by a foster son, Jake, and a sister, Barbara Dubina of Bend, Ore.