Western Alaska leaders fret over marijuana legalization in rural communities

Some Western Alaska leaders, like Akiak's Mike Williams Sr. pictured here, worry that a proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana will place undue burden in already strained rural Alaska villages and compound substance abuse problems. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
Some Western Alaska leaders, like Akiak’s Mike Williams Sr. pictured here, worry that a proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana will place undue burden in already strained rural Alaska villages and compound substance abuse problems.
(Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
As debate over whether to legalize marijuana in Alaska heats up, the question as to how rural communities will tackle the issue looms.

Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak, chairperson of the “Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No on 2” campaign, is working to ensure the ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana in Alaska does not succeed.

Williams is a lifelong Alaskan who grew up in Western Alaska. He’s served as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in the region since 1975 and has long been an opponent of drugs and alcohol in rural Alaska. An Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher, Williams has finished 15 races since 1992 in an effort to publicize sobriety.

Speaking from his home in Akiak Thursday, he said he watched the initiative effort closely, looking at the pros and cons of both sides before deciding he wanted to oppose the effort. He said legalizing another mind-altering substance — whether alcohol or drugs — does not help rural Alaska communities.

“If Alaska decides to legalize it, it’s sending a wrong message to our kids,” he said. “I believe our kids deserve to be drug-free and substance abuse-free and to have a chance in life.”

Under the language of the initiative, marijuana sale and transport would become legal in Alaska, taxed and moderated much like alcohol and available to those at least 21 years old. But there’s one major difference between alcohol and marijuana in Alaska. Under a state Supreme Court decision, possession of small amount of marijuana is protected under Alaska’s constitutional right to privacy. The initiative includes provisions that would allow local communities to ban marijuana sales and retail establishments, but under the Supreme Court decision, personal possession and cultivation cannot be banned. The same high court has ruled against alcohol in the past, saying it is a public health risk and therefore is subject to stricter restrictions.

Williams said it’s been hard enough trying to regulate alcohol in Akiak, which bans the sale and importation of alcohol but not the possession. Akiak is one of 108 communities in Alaska — most of them small, off-the-road villages — that limit the sale, possession or importation of alcohol. The so-called “local option laws” are used in large communities of several thousand people, such as Barrow and Kotzebue, as well as tiny ones of fewer than 50 residents.

Williams is sure marijuana is in his community of 350, but if legalization passes, he said it will be “another thing on our shoulders. Why should we make waves and rock the boat and create trouble?”

Arguing over ‘prohibition’

Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, also opposes the initiative. Naneng’s group represents 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, including Akiak. He said he’s personally seen the trauma he believes marijuana inflicts — his brother spent time at Alaska Psychiatric Institute as the result of using marijuana, Naneng said. He dislikes how the drug affects people’s judgment and how the initiative, if passed, seems to contradict local option laws.

“It would fly in the face of them,” he said.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol in Alaska doesn’t see it that way. Spokesman Taylor Bickford said Friday that provisions in the initiative allow for local bans on sale and distribution. “Every community could come to that conclusion if they desire,” Bickford said. “They could ban the industry altogether, and that’s entirely up to them.”

Bickford also disagreed that legalizing marijuana would encourage more teen use. He cited studies showing that marijuana use is already prevalent among young people, proving that “prohibition” on marijuana isn’t working. The pro-legalization campaign believes that more regulation will protect kids better.

“If prohibition had been successful in protecting our kids, we’d be having a different conversation,” he said. “But we’ve failed miserably.”

Marijuana in villages

Lt. Kathy Peterson, supervisor of the statewide drug enforcement unit for the Alaska State Troopers, said it’s likely marijuana is in every Alaska village. “Some are more prevalent than others, I don’t know that there’s any place that hasn’t managed to have marijuana in it,” she said.

According to the 2013 annual drug report, troopers seized 296 pounds of marijuana and arrested 669 people for marijuana-related crimes. Peterson said often marijuana charges result from the investigation of others crimes and vice versa. She also said it can be hard regulate marijuana, like alcohol, based on the geographic vastness of rural Alaska. “There are many ways to get it in,” she said.

That’s a worry Williams has in his own village. He said it will be interesting to see how different communities decide whether or not to support the legalization effort. “There needs to be discussion,” he said. “We haven’t dealt with this issue at this level before.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com or on Google+

Related Links:

Canada:  Pot raids in Canada’s Arctic and Montreal net 1,000 plants, 22 kgs, CBC News

United States:  Chronic alcoholics rebuild their lives in Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

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