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5 days in Alaska: A marijuana measure puts dry towns in a haze

If ballot initiative passes, residents of communities like Manokotak will be able to possess pot but not alcohol

This is the third in a five-part series, “Fed up in Alaska,” exploring local issues that voters will take to the polls this November. 

MANOKOTAK, Alaska — Alaska joins Oregon and the District of Columbia this November in voting on whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. If approved by voters, Ballot Measure No. 2 will allow the taxation and regulation of marijuana in Alaska and allow the sale of marijuana paraphernalia. The public use of marijuana would remain banned.

But Alaska is already ahead of the game. Medical marijuana was legalized in 1998, and private use of marijuana has been legal in the state for nearly 40 years. In 1975 the State Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution’s right to privacy, adults are allowed to possess and use small amounts of marijuana in the privacy of their homes.

It is no wonder, then, that the marijuana legalization movement has fixed its eyes on Alaska. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) considers Alaska’s ballot measure low-hanging fruit and has concentrated much of its effort in the state to ensure it passes. But many residents are bothered by what they see as outside powers meddling in Alaska’s affairs, making the outcome of the ballot vote less predictable.

In Manokotak, a village of approximately 400 residents, the sale, importation and possession of alcohol is prohibited.
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Manokotak is a village of some 400 residents, a majority of whom are Alaska Natives. Nearly 15 percent of Alaskans identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. Manokotak is completely dry. It’s one of 34 Alaskan communities that ban the sale, importation and possession of alcohol under a local option law that allows villages and municipalities to limit the availability of alcohol in their community.

Moses Toyukuk, vice president of the Manokotak village council and a former mayor, is puzzled by the ballot measure on marijuana. Like many Alaska Native elders, he is painfully aware of the problems that alcohol abuse causes in communities like his. Legalizing marijuana would, in his opinion, just add to the trouble.

“It would create another problem, and same as alcohol and maybe even worse, because it can lead to other things, I heard,” he said, “and so I hope everybody in Alaska would do the right thing and vote against Ballot Measure No. 2.”

Alcohol abuse disproportionately affects the Alaska Native population, according to some studies, where alcohol-related deaths occur at nearly nine times the U.S. average. More than 100 communities in Alaska have adopted some degree of the local option to regulate alcohol availability.

The proposed marijuana law allows for local control of sales but not of personal use or possession. This would mean that residents in some communities could possess marijuana but not alcohol.

If statistics are to be believed, Alaskans like their marijuana and have done so for years. According to surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, state statistics show that Alaska has one of the highest rates of marijuana use in the country.

For pro-legalization advocates like Chris Rempert, that’s reason enough to bring an underground market out into the open. He is the Alaska political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and was sent from Washington, D.C., to run the campaign.

“Right now we are really focused on Alaska,” he said, adding that he believes Maine, Arizona, Nevada and California will hold similar referendums soon.

In the 2004 elections, Alaska had a ballot measure to remove penalties for adults over 21 years of age for using, growing, selling or giving away marijuana. It failed to pass, with 44 percent of voters supporting it. The MPP was involved in that initiative too.

“Now 10 years later, we see it’s time to try again. National support for marijuana policy reform is just skyrocketing,” Rempert said.

The legalization debate in Alaska drew global attention when Anchorage news reporter Charlo Greene cursed and quit her job on live TV after her station, KTVA, aired a story about a medical marijuana business that she owns. Rempert said Greene's stunt, which went viral, increased attention on the issue, especially among the younger voters.

The MPP has reportedly invested about $700,000 to campaign in Alaska. Winning Alaska would be a major political gain for the campaign.

Louie Alakayak, an elder and the president of the Manokotak village council, worries that passing the marijuana measure will lead to problems among young people.
Al Jazeera America

“It really made sense to do this now, especially with the victories in Colorado and Washington,” said Rempert, “and I think Alaskans understand that it’s time for this. They are tired of seeing this wasteful failed policy of prohibition.”

But for many Alaskans, the MPP’s work in Alaska is a sign of outside influence creeping into Alaska’s affairs.

Kristina Woolston, a coordinating committee member for Big Marijuana. Big Mistake., which bills itself as a “grass-roots coalition of concerned Alaskans,” believes the intense Senate race in Alaska between Democratic incumbent Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan has put the state under a magnifying glass. Because of that, she said, media attention and outside money have been pouring in.

“This ballot measure regarding marijuana is a good example of outsiders really hoping to influence the election, and I think we have an opportunity as Alaskans to stand up to outside interests,” she said.

The campaign against legalization is gaining ground, with groups such as the Alaska State Medical Association taking a stand against Ballot Measure No. 2.

Polls show that a large number of votes are still up for grabs, with no clear front-runner. An early August poll by the Public Policy Project found that 44 percent of voters would vote yes and 49 percent would vote no. The remaining respondents said they weren’t sure which way they would vote. A more recent poll, however, shows the yes vote leading.

In Manokotak, opinions reflect that divide, which is often generational. Louie Alakayak, president of the Manokotak village council, worries passing the law will be a detriment to young people.  

“I’ve seen some effects of marijuana in some of the younger [people] raised here, and I don’t feel comfortable with it,” he said.

Resident Brenda Etuckmelra, 30, laughs when asked what young people in the village think about the measure. “I think they’re happy about it,” she said. “I think they’re going to be voting yes.”

To view the “Fed up in Alaska” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

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