My Turn: Ballot Measure 2 strikes the right balance for rural Alaska

I grew up in rural Alaska, surrounded by drugs and alcohol. I didn’t come from a troubled home or a broken community. Still, growing up in Eagle and Cordova, I encountered drugs and alcohol like many Alaskans do — frequently.

In high school, I began to see more “hard” drugs, and began drinking socially. Cordova’s fishing fleet, like many groups of hard-working and independent Alaskans, struggles with drug and alcohol use.

It was also in high school that I was first offered marijuana. I chose not to smoke marijuana mostly because it didn’t appeal to me. I never smoked cigarettes either, despite their legality.

As I got older, I started to encounter drugs and alcohol in professional settings — Alaska Legal Services, the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy and the Army National Guard. I began to realize that I had been looking at the problem of substance abuse in the wrong way.

When we debate substance abuse in this country, we focus on the substance. We have a “War on Drugs,” a war on substances we deem harmful.

But the issue more often is the person.

Self-medication — the abuse side of the equation — is rampant in this country, and particularly prevalent in Alaska. Whether you are a fisherman who never recovered from the Exxon Valdez, a logger who lost his job due to shortsighted federal policy, an Alaska Native who was abused at a boarding school, or a veteran struggling with PTSD, there is a unique amount of trauma in Alaska.

Not all substance abuse is rooted in trauma, but much is. When mental wounds go untreated, people turn to alcohol and drugs. The substance itself isn’t the issue — one of the most dangerous and addictive practices in Alaska is huffing gasoline. How workable would a prohibition on gasoline be?

Which brings me to Ballot Measure 2, the initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol. I support this initiative because our current policy of prohibition has failed, and because legalizing and regulating marijuana will give us revenue to get at the roots of the problem: untreated mental health and addiction issues, combined with underfunded education and law enforcement agencies.

Let me be clear: I am not in favor of legalizing all drugs. If alcohol is our “speed limit” of 60 mph (metaphorically), then marijuana is 45 mph. Heroin is 120 mph.

But again, our current policy is a failure — particularly in rural Alaska, where I come from.

Marijuana possession arrests total 80 percent of all drug arrests in our state. Possession enforcement cost about $8.5 million in 2010. Non-violent offenders outnumber violent offenders in Alaskan jails. Unscrupulous drug cartels control the black market.

For all this, what do we get? Is marijuana hard to come by for our youth? No, it is not. Have we lowered marijuana use? It’s hard to say, but Alaska under prohibition has the nation’s highest usage rates. That means that our so-called “drugged driving” rates are also among the nation’s highest, right now, and yet the majority of impaired driving accidents come from alcohol, not marijuana. It’s not even close.

We can learn from Colorado and Washington. The Alaska initiative creates a regulatory board tasked with creating “requirements to prevent the sale or diversion of marijuana and marijuana products to persons under the age of 21” and making “reasonable restrictions on the advertising and display of marijuana and marijuana products.” These “reasonable” restrictions can and should be very strict.

Opponents warn of “concentrates” and more potent varietals. Concentrates are mostly used by the medical marijuana community; your average user doesn’t want them. Regardless, the board can set limits on potency through the “health and safety” portion of the initiative. And potent marijuana has been here since I was in high school — people just smoke less.

I always ask: will this help or hurt rural Alaska? There are communities in rural Alaska who chose to go “dry” or “damp,” and I support their right to make those local decisions. I would not support Ballot Measure 2 if it took away those rights. Fortunately, the initiative clearly states that local governments can prohibit marijuana sales and commercial cultivation in their communities. If your local government wants to keep our current system of prohibition, they can.

I’ve been around marijuana, both in rural Alaska and Anchorage, for nearly my entire life. I don’t use it myself; I don’t encourage it. But responsible adult use should not be a crime, any more than drinking a beer or a glass of wine.

Perhaps the towns of my youth — Eagle and Cordova — will decide to prohibit marijuana production and sale. Under the initiative, it will be their right to do so. But personally, I’ll be voting Yes on Ballot Measure 2 to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

• Forrest Dunbar is a lifelong Alaskan, and a former commercial fisherman and wildland firefighter. He is the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress.

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