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Ambler residents petition for local option change

February 10th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

A handful of Ambler residents have lent their signatures to a petition calling for a reconsideration of the village's local option status.

This is the second time in as many years a local option change has been up for debate in the village, though this most recent petition is quite different from the one put forward in 2014.

"I listened to the community last time and this is why I changed it, to give them something to work with to get it started. If we can get this passed, it's a step," said Tristen Pattee, the resident who spearheaded both petitions.

The 2014 petition called for the lifting of the local option law in its entirety, meaning removing any ban on importation, sales, and possession altogether.

This time, the petition calls for taking away the ban on importation but not sales, meaning there would need to be a vetted and licensed seller in the community.

"The only person that [would be able to] sell alcohol is the person that's granted a license and the city council will have a really big part in who gets a license with the control board in Anchorage," said Pattee. "One of the big issues two years ago when we wanted to remove it altogether was people could almost bring in as much booze in as they wanted. Now, if you bring in anything more than 10.5 liters of alcohol and you get caught, it will be possession with intent to sell. So, law enforcement would have that avenue to combat large amounts of alcohol being brought into the community."

Pattee is hoping this change to the language of the petition, and that it's only a partial removal of the current ban, will sit well with local residents this time around.

Ambler city officials confirmed they had received the petition in December and it had been brought before the council at its regular meeting that month. At that time, officials said the council decided to hold off on taking action until it could be considered further.

Once the signatures and the petition have been confirmed valid, the process of scheduling a special local option election will move forward.

Pattee said he looks forward to that point. In the interim, there will be time for community discussion, once again, about the potential change.

Looking back two years to the last time Ambler talked about a local option change, Pattee said he was disappointed to see very little forward momentum in terms of tackling the issues brought up at that time.

Community members had talked then about their concerns about alcoholism and lack of treatment options and the effects of substance abuse on Elders and children.

"I was really hoping they would follow through with what they were saying about creating programs and doing mitigation methods, even if [the last local option change] didn't pass," Pattee said. "Once the election was over and it didn't pass, that didn't happen."

That reemergence of the community conversation is a benefit of having this issue return to the spotlight for Dr. Kim Douglas, who works at the local village health clinic.

"As both a community member and a provider, I think it's always good to have it come up for discussion because it definitely highlights the concerns that the community has had with alcohol in the past. I think it's always good to have a discussion about it," she said.

Personally, she's not in favor of bringing more alcohol into the community, but said she understands the individual person's right to decide to drink.

"I also understand that people make their own choices and I would rather see responsible measures in place to address that ripple effect," she said.

She'd like to see protections for the community from the effects of alcohol abuse regardless of whether or not this petition moves forward, or whether or not the local option is changed.

"Frankly, even though it's a dry village it's effectively wet because it doesn't stop alcohol from being used," Douglas said. "I think probably, in my mind, the greater issue has to do with public safety and law enforcement and having treatment available for people who have difficulty controlling their alcohol use and putting others at risk. That's a discussion the community needs to have. In other words, if the vote is to have free access to alcohol purchases, I think the community needs to, at the same time, have in place an action plan for addressing the safety issues like driving under the influence, increased domestic violence calls that come with increased alcohol abuse, and just making sure we have a village public safety officer who can respond to things."

She'd also like to see both outpatient and inpatient treatment programs so people who find themselves on the wrong end of the law can still have access to help that can address the root problem.

Currently, there are limited regional outpatient options available for Ambler residents via telemedicine programs. They can be difficult to maintain, though, without much support within the community.

"We simply don't have any kind of provision for local treatment in the villages," she said.

That's something Pattee hopes legalization will actually help, by bringing in revenue the city is currently lacking.

"Even though people were still hoping for these programs to be put in place, the biggest issue was funding," he said of the time between the last vote and now. "Where was the money going to come from?"

Off of taxes on a licensed seller, Pattee hopes the city can pull in enough money to appropriate funding specifically for these kinds of programs.

"Prohibition doesn't work. Everything's better with regulation. Anything unregulated gets out of control and taken advantage of and that's where we're at right now. It's out of control and it's created a lawless town," he said. "How it could benefit us if it were legalized is we could channel the funding to create programs for abusers and treatment programs. We can create activities for the children. We could have some community-run law enforcement. We could create new jobs."

It could potentially result in fewer felony convictions for local people, he pointed out, if the impetus to import were no longer there. He hopes that could make it easier for people on the path to recovery to get jobs without marks on their records.

"Another benefit would be it would keep the money that's going to the bootleggers now in town to help sustain our economy," he said. "Also, legalizing it could eliminate bootlegging, which is how a lot of problems are brought. A lot of bootleggers don't really care who they sell it to, if they're underage or not, which is where a lot of problems arise from the uncontrolled sales of alcohol."

This is part of the ripple effect Douglas described as coming from any type of alcohol abuse within a community. It often affects many more people than just the person importing, or selling, or even buying and consuming.

"The ones that suffer are kids who might have to go home to that or other household members or even people who might be kind of caught in the crossfire with accidents and injuries that happen year-round because of people not being safe and drinking too much," Douglas said. "I think it's really important that we remember that it's not just about a person's right to drink, it's about being a responsible drinker and a responsible user and recognizing that public safety is as much a right for everybody as it is for the person who happens to be sitting at home drinking."

She hopes community members will keep that in mind as this process moves forward, regardless of how they may feel about the overall proposal.

It's also something the petition's sponsor and signers have been thinking about, Pattee said.

"If this does pass, I will push for ordinances and resolutions to be passed to appropriate certain funding for these programs to protect the community and make sure they benefit from this law if it passes," Pattee said.

Pattee said he also wants to be clear about his intent in forwarding this petition — it was not to encourage drinking in the community, but to regain control over the drinking that's already happening.

"That's something I want to try to stress as much as I can," he said. "I'm not encouraging drinking by legalizing the substance. I'm trying to take control and use the demand it has to mitigate its effects on the community. I don't want people to be thinking I'm encouraging them to drink. We're wanting to take the control away from the black market, which has a lot to do with the negative things that happen in the community."

Ultimately, both he and Douglas hope the community will use this as an opportunity to seriously consider some of these issues that already exist and think about ways they can be effectively managed going forward, whether by local option change or not.

"Effectively we're wet, so they should be thinking about these things already," Douglas said. "However, given that we have an opportunity to put some light into it as we as a community [possibly] take this to a vote, I think these are things we really need to focus on."


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