Three Arctic villages in Alaska may decide to lift the local option and end laws that ban alcohol in their communities. There are strong feelings on both sides of the argument and this movement to change local law comes on the heels of a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which places Alaska second in the United States only to New Mexico in annual deaths attributable to alcohol and similarly ranks high in years of potential life lost due to alcohol.
Supporters of the change in local law say that continuing to ban alcohol in these communities will not prevent people from obtaining it if they want it, but will prevent the communities from being able to take responsible care of the problem. Allowing alcohol in the communities gives them the opportunity to gain tax revenue that can be geared toward education and substance abuse treatment programs the communities do not currently have. Proponents in the Alaskan communities of Ambler, Kobuk, and Shungnak have begun the process of petitioning and/or scheduling elections to determine whether the Arctic localities will keep the bans in place or end the local options so they may begin selling alcohol. Depending on the results of elections the ban on alcohol could be lifted immediately.
Another argument for lifting the ban on alcohol in these villages is that many otherwise law-abiding residents of these communities are getting criminal records due to the ban. Tristen Pattee from Ambler, who sponsors the change in that township, says the local option should be lifted because it is criminalizing what “other Americans are doing” every day. He would rather have his local authorities control the alcohol flow than attempt to prohibit it when it is already readily available. Pattee admits that alcohol is a problem in Alaska but does not see the current situation as helping to solve it. The problem these bans cause extend far beyond the borders of these remote villages too. The owners of an air charter service based in Fairbanks have been dealing with legal difficulties for several years. Because they are a private charter company serving Alaska they do not regularly check passengers for items that could be contraband in their home communities. As a result they have been charged with importing alcohol illegally into those communities without being actively involved in any misdoings.
Those who favor keeping the local options in place see things differently. Many have a fear that with alcohol being more readily available children will be more likely to be adversely affected. Others worry that with legalization those who have managed to tackle alcoholism in their own lives may have significant setbacks in their own sobriety due to the reintroduction of alcohol to the Arctic villages. Maureen Wilson from Kobuk, who has fought her own battles with alcoholism, also sees another potential problem to lifting the ban on alcohol. While she fears for her own sobriety in the face of an increased alcohol presence, she also sees a potentially significant economic impact to the remote Arctic areas. She remarks that will the few legitimate job opportunities in the rural communities many people count bootlegging as their primary source of income. She fears that if alcohol becomes legal, and therefore ends an illegal alcohol trade, there will be less money flowing through the region to sustain its citizens.
Both sides of the issue have unique perspectives and reasons for their points of view and it will be interesting to see how the voting goes in the months to come. Currently only two communities in the Northwest Arctic, the villages of Kotzebue and Kiana, have lifted local options and ended the ban on alcohol but more change may be coming to Alaska. Only time will tell.
By David Morris