It's no secret that alcoholism is rampant in Alaska and is at the root of many concerns in rural villages.
But three Arctic communities are about to challenge their local option status to see if prohibiting liquor is really the answer to these problems, or if the law is simply spurring more crime.
If people want alcohol in dry communities, they are going to get it, and become criminals by doing so, say proponents of the local option lift.
"Whether it's home brew or distilled spirits, these products are either being made or imported for personal use or for sale," said Ambler's Tristen Pattee, who sponsored the petition in Ambler. "People do not need baby-sitting by the government to be responsible around alcohol. They need to take back ownership of their communities and not have the heavy hand of the Alaska State Troopers ruling their every movement."
Banning alcohol doesn't work, he said. And if the local option were lifted, the communities could benefit from the revenue of a city-run package store or bar.
"If the local option law were lifted, the city would be able to generate consistent revenue that would be sufficient enough to appropriate funds to things like youth centers, alcohol and drug education, and law enforcement," Pattee said. "Things the villages need desperately."
In Ambler, Pattee collected the required signatures -- 35 percent of the village's current voting population -- to start the process. No date has been set for an election in Ambler but upriver in Kobuk, a special election will occur July 28. Those working on the effort in Shungnak have yet to collect the required signatures but an application for petition was filed on June 17.
After the appropriate signatures are collected and approved by the city clerk, the city council in each of the communities will approve or reject the paperwork and, if it's approved, set a date for an election, said Margaret Hansen, a government specialist with the state's Division of Community and Regional Affairs from Kotzebue on Monday.
If the voters choose to lift the local option, it becomes effective immediately, she said.
In her 20 years on the job, Hansen said, Kotzebue and Kiana are the only Northwest Arctic communities that have voted to do away with local option status.
"I guess I was surprised. I didn't know there was any interest out there," Hansen said. "It's the right of the voters and so the council has to follow through with it."
'We might as well control it'
In all three communities, the importation and sale of alcohol is banned, though possession is legal. In the state, there are 108 local option communities, with limitations ranging from banning all alcohol entirely, including possession, to available liquor through city-run package stores or restaurants. Some villages allow importation but have banned sales within the community.
"The Alaska State Legislature has enacted laws that provide a method for communities to control and impose certain limits on the availability of alcohol in a community," according to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. "The law requires community involvement through the petition and 'local option' election process."
But whether the community is damp or dry, booze will be there, Pattee said. And with stiff penalties, including jail time and hefty fines, for even a misdemeanor importation charge, otherwise law-abiding citizens are becoming criminals by having a drink.
"I'm doing this because community members are being criminalized just for wanting something that a lot of other Americans are doing in their everyday lives: having a drink," Pattee said.
Because people are getting and drinking alcohol anyway, it should be legal and regulated, he added.
"It's already here, so we might as well control it," he said.
"The revenue would create more law enforcement in the village and could lower the percentage of (alcohol-related) violence."
According to a 2013 status report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive drinking results in 275 deaths and 9,131 years of potential life lost each year in Alaska. Some 20.8 percent of adults and 16.7 percent of high school students in Alaska reported binge drinking in 2011.
Alcohol abuse is often linked to violence and suicide in Alaska, especially in remote communities.
In a report published in 2000, the Alaska Criminal Justice Assessment Commission found that 97 percent of Alaska Native crimes have alcohol or drugs as a factor and 81 percent of reports of harm involve substance abuse.
"Alcohol is a problem but prohibition is a bigger problem and it doesn't work," Pattee said. "Abuse of any substance happens to a greater degree when it is prohibited. Instead of a casual drink now and again, there is much more likely to be binge drinking."
With special policing teams set up to target bootlegging and alcohol distribution in local option communities in Alaska, including the Western Arctic Alcohol and Narcotics Team and the Healthy Communities Initiative on the North Slope, the number of importation and attempted importation charges alone is staggering.
"Communities need to take back control," Pattee said. "Too many people are becoming criminals and negatively affecting the rest of their lives, all because they want to be just like the rest of the U.S. society."
Village public safety officer Leslie Rolls has been working in Shungnak and Kobuk for nearly 17 years and said last week that alcohol-related calls keep him the busiest in the villages.
With no strong opinion one way or the other about reintroducing alcohol to the Upper Kobuk, Rolls said he is a little concerned that more alcohol might exacerbate crime in the area.
"But once they get used to alcohol being here, it might calm down," he said. "But it might not. I don't know."
Staying sober in a wet town
Kobuk's Maureen Wilson has been sober since December. Living in a dry community makes staying sober easier, she said. But still, she's torn on the proposal to legalize alcohol in Kobuk.
"There aren't that many job opportunities here," she said. "And a lot of people rely on illegal activity to make their living."
Without bootlegging, some will lose their main source of income. However, she added, with more alcohol readily available, concerns for the community's youths and those who are trying to get or stay clean are on her mind.
"It has a huge potential to raise crime and expose it to our kids," Wilson said, adding that the last time Kobuk voted to lift the local option was more than 20 years ago and it failed, but only by a narrow margin.
"It causes so many problems in communities and so many people get hurt over it."
Wilson tried outpatient treatment and other techniques to try to kick her problem and has finally found peace without liquor in her life. If it becomes legal, she said, she's not sure how that will affect her.
"Personally, I'm a little scared of alcohol coming into the villages because I don't know how I would handle it. It makes me think of everyone else going through this or all the people who are trying to get over (alcoholism)."
Local option nightmare
For Mary Ames and Ken Jouppi, owners and operators of KenAir, a charter service out of Fairbanks serving remote Alaska, the local option law has turned into their worst nightmare.
Targeted for bringing residents to villages who were carrying alcohol, the pair has been fighting a legal battle for years. They have lost their plane, a Cessna 206, and their livelihood stemming from an ongoing investigation that started in 2010.
It is not customary for charter pilots to search the belongings for contraband of residents flying into the villages, Ames said.
And so, if they were flying alcohol in, it was without their knowledge, she said.
In April 2012, Alaska State Troopers served the couple and the business with a search warrant and took the plane, according to Ames. Jouppi was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors for attempting to import alcohol. He was acquitted of the felony charge of importation but was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge and was ordered to serve jail time and pay a fine.
"The Alaska State Troopers, based on my training and experience, have ghettoized rural Alaska," Ames said. "They are preying on people in rural Alaska.
"What (local option) is doing is demonizing people and giving them huge incentives to try and import booze."
Despite twice being ordered to return the plane, the state is still holding it in Anchorage, she said, adding that Jouppi has been flying for 50 years.
Ames has subsequently dedicated her life to the cause, she said. She has pulled hundreds of cases of importation charges from the trooper dispatch and follows cases in Fairbanks trying to identify discrepancies and offer support to those who are battling the same fight.
"I will spend all my life savings and would rather eat cat food in a culvert than cave in," she said. "Local option simply doesn't work. People are going to get something they really, really want."
Putting children at risk?
Ambler's Martin Cleveland, 53, has been sober for nearly 15 years and has seen firsthand the impacts that alcohol can have on a person, a family and a community.
"I've looked at both sides," he said from his home last week. "But as far as family goes -- well, family is more important than the city making money. There are always going to be two sides, and people are going to vote how they want, but we have to protect our children; they are the future leaders of our community."
More alcohol in Ambler is a public safety issue, he said. There is an abundance of booze in the village already, he said, noting that inebriated people can be seen staggering down the street or heard spouting off on the local VHF radio.
He's concerned the community will have to endure even more of that if the ban is lifted, as well as more alcohol-fueled crimes, he said.
Cleveland has had his brushes with the law, all of which were alcohol-related, he said. But since embracing sobriety, he has managed to turn his life around. He now offers support to friends and community members who are going through their own alcohol struggles.
Like many alcoholics, Cleveland went through the cycle of drinking heavily, waking up with a hangover and starting again to avoid feeling sick. He hit his bottom when he passed out with his young child at home and woke up not knowing where his son was. The child, who was 1 at the time, was unharmed and sleeping, as it turned out, but it was then that Cleveland knew he had to stop.
"It was a hard battle," he said. "Alcoholism is such a bad disease. It affects everybody. Personally, I feel it drives families apart, but it'll be up to the people, so we'll see."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.
By JILLIAN ROGERS