Our small rural town, located 26 miles inside the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska, is in for some big changes this summer. Last fall in the local municipal elections, Kotzebue voters legalized the local sale and distribution of alcohol. Kotzebue is now officially and legally "wet." This change comes after more than 20 years of Kotzebue's "damp" status, which banned the local sale but not the importation of alcohol. Before last fall's vote, Kotzebue had not been wet since 1987.
Some townspeople thought that establishing a liquor distribution center and city-owned liquor store, scheduled to open in June, would decrease a currently thriving local bootlegging industry as well as alcohol abuse in local households.
Last fall's alcohol vote was controversial. Some say that legal alcohol sales will increase alcohol abuse, including among underage drinkers, and also in the villages surrounding Kotzebue. Others believe it is a good idea to create a local tax revenue stream from local alcohol sales, but those selling booze locally also might expect to make some handsome personal profits. I believe Kotzebue should stop importing alcohol completely. I have witnessed first-hand the effects of alcohol abuse on people. Alcohol wastes money while it tears families apart with its abuse.
Whether in Anchorage, Nome, or Kotzebue, you will almost always run into worn-out people begging for money, supposedly to buy food. In fact, these unfortunate folks too often use that panhandled money to buy alcohol instead of what the money was given for. For example, one year Kotzebue's high school cross-country running team traveled to Anchorage and bought too much food for the runners to finish. We couldn't bring all the food back to Kotzebue, but we also couldn't just throw it away. We decided to offer it to a seemingly homeless person on the street. He approached our van to see what we were giving out. When he realized it was just oranges, yogurt, bananas, and bagels, he said he would pass. He still asked us for money, though, likely for buying booze.
In rural Alaska, alcohol affects most everyone in some way. Children especially fall victim to alcohol abuse and can be scarred for life. Some children must be taken away from parents who cannot control their drinking. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is a common result from women drinking during pregnancy, "is one of the most common causes of mental retardation, and is the only cause that is entirely preventable," according to Alaska's Office of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Sadly, FAS is all too common in this region, and legalizing alcohol isn't going to reduce the consequences of it.
Child abuse happens worldwide, but local young children are facing even more appalling circumstances with this recent change in Kotzebue's alcohol laws. People who support the local sale of alcohol should realize it does not make sense to try to solve serious local problems that already existed without the legal distribution and sale of alcohol. Do stories of young teens being raped and beaten while someone is drinking fall on deaf ears? I believe more, not fewer problems are bound to befall us with local alcohol sales.
Some people seem naive, thinking that legalization of the sale and distribution of alcohol in Kotzebue can have a lot of good effects. Are people just looking out for themselves? Do they want to make a living on the backs of others' suffering?
Kotzebue Middle/High School senior Jared Miller is a two-time state wrestling champion and also was named the 2009-10 Outstanding Wrestler for Alaska's 1A-2A-3A schools. He plans to wrestle in college. This piece is distributed by Chukchi News and Information Service, an award-winning cultural journalism project of Chukchi College, a University of Alaska branch in Kotzebue.
This essay originally appeared on Tundra Telegraph. Talk of the Tundra features commentary by Alaskans from across the state. The views expressed are the writer's own and are not endorsed by Alaska Dispatch.