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Perils of Prohibition: History repeats in Alaska's failed attempt to stamp out booze

Craig Medred

The worst of what Alaska's war on alcohol has brought to the impoverished, rural areas of the state -- a general loss of respect for the law and the disintegration of social order in some villages -- should have been easy enough to predict three decades back. A national experiment with Prohibition had ended in disaster only about 50 years before Alaska political leaders voted to allow villages to go dry.

Well-intentioned American voters in 1919 believed stopping the production, sale and transportation of alcohol would make the country a better place, and thus endorsed a constitutional amendment to impose Prohibition across America. Things did not work out as planned.

What the ban brought, historians now say, was the development of sophisticated criminal organizations, contempt for government, and rampant corruption among politicians and police forces.

By 1933, Americans had seen enough and approved another constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition. The ban had lasted about 14 years. Alaska's prohibition has now been in place in some areas for twice as long. Alaskans hoped it would end a rural epidemic of homicide, suicide, domestic and sexual violence, accidental death and more. A U.S. Justice Department sponsored study of the federally funded Alaska Rural Alcohol Interdiction Program concluded that hasn't happened.

But the report also says Alaska appears to have avoided the political and police corruption that came with national prohibition, and there are no signs of sophisticated criminal organizations taking root in rural Alaska, possibly because the rural parts of the state are in general so remote and so poor. Loss of respect for the law, however, is a different matter.

People who live in rural Alaska say that is often plainly visible. It was on public display in Bethel this spring when about two dozen area residents were tried for their roles in an illegal, protest fishery on the Kuskokwim River the summer before. One of them -- Yago Evan -- didn’t bother to show up in court for trial, so Judge Bruce G. Ward, a kind and patient jurist, had his clerk call Yago at home. Evan was frank about his feelings.

“I'm not going to waste fucking time on that fucking thing," Evan said through the speakerphone in the courtroom. These are words not often voiced to a judge in a court room. But Evan's attitude is not unique.

Some Village Public Safety Officers in the region, as well as many villagers, say respect for the law has been undermined by leaders who sometimes say the right thing about alcohol laws, but privately do the wrong thing. Publicly almost everyone expresses the view that keeping booze out of the villages is a good thing; privately a lot of people keep drinking. When village leaders say one thing and do another, it sets a bad example for everyone.

“Hypocrisy is like a sheet of glass,” said James Hoelscher, a Village Public Safety Officer in Hooper Bay. Everyone can see through it.

Hooper Bay is a long-dry village with a history of alcohol problems that have never stopped. Hoelscher and Alaska State Troopers wage a constant battle to keep villagers from cooking up homebrew or bringing in liquor. In January, troopers arrested 41-year-old Hooper Bay resident Albert Simon on charges he was trying to smuggle seven plastic fifths of liquor and two plastic soda jugs full of booze back to the village.

Simon is the treasurer of the Paimiut Corp., an Alaska Native corporation representing an old village near Hooper Bay, and a member of the Paimiut Traditional Council. He has worked with the North Pacific Research Board in studying birds in the Hooper Bay area. He has worked with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, and helped coordinate the efforts of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Purdue University to study pollution dangers from flooding in the Hooper Bay area. 

He is a director of Hooper Bay Search and Rescue, one of the most important organizations in a community of 1,000 largely cut off from the rest of the world. When someone gets lost in the area in winter, the efforts of the organization can easily mean the difference between life and death.

Simon is by all indications a respected member of the community, and yet, according to troopers, he decided to become a smuggler. Efforts to reach him for this story proved futile. But if the charges against Simon are true, he is not alone in trying to get around the ban on alcohol. The people who try to beat the ban are legion, in one way or another, for better or worse.

America's history

Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns produced a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour, Emmy-award-winning series titled simply "PROHIBITION" for the Public Broadcasting Service in 2011. The trailer for the series highlights "a nation of drunkards" as the narrator describes how life once was:

John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider ... Young Abraham Lincoln sold whiskey by the barrel from his grocery store ... A young Maryland slave named Frederick Douglas said whiskey made him feel like a president, self-assured and independent. ... Americans routinely drank at every meal, including breakfast.

By some standards, the drinking in rural Alaska today pales when compared to what the series depicts going on across the nation at one time.

"By 1830," Burns reported, "Americans spent more money on alcohol each year than the total expenditures of the federal government."

Alcohol was implicated in lost productivity and the gross mistreatment of women. Men wasted their money on booze. Women and children suffered for it. Drunk men beat and raped their wives, something that was at the time considered legally acceptable. The country was a drunken mess. Getting rid of booze sounded like a good idea.

"Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse," the Public Broadcasting Service notes:

But the enshrining of a faith-driven moral code in the Constitution paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality. Thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened. Music heated up. America's Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp. Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country.

Whether some form of Prohibition could have been made to work is still being debated. There are those who argue that had supporters played the politics better, they might have been able to maintain at least some restrictions on alcohol.

"Today, it is easy to say that the goal of total prohibition was impossible," and a compromise to rid the country of hard liquor but allow beer and light wine might have been better, wrote Jack S. Blocker Jr. in the American Journal of Public Health. "Nevertheless, the possibility remains that in 1933 a less restrictive form of Prohibition could have satisfied the economic concerns that drove Repeal while still controlling the use of alcohol in its most dangerous forms."

Blocker and others argue the downfall of Prohibition was rooted not in fundamental American desires for freedom, but in economics. Prohibition held, he noted, until the economy crashed and Americans began worrying about problems bigger than booze.

Money, money, money

Rural Alaska had problems bigger than alcohol before the newest form of Alaska prohibition began there three decades ago, and no one in the state has ever paid much attention to rural economics -- except to grab the profits to be made in fur, gold and salmon and then get out. The robber barons did leave behind one thing, however, a cash economy.

Market forces in rural Alaska today are every bit as real as in any other society governed largely by capitalism. The economic realities of supply and demand dictate alcohol prices. Because demand remains high while prohibition hampers supply, Troopers say the rural, black-market price of a $10 bottle of whiskey is $150. The $15 return on each dollar spent on a bottle of booze to be resold in rural areas is 10 times the profit margin for trafficking in cocaine, according to troopers.

Ten to 20 dollars invested in juice, sugar and yeast, meanwhile, can yield a gallon of homebrew. The going price for that drink appears in the neighborhood of $50 a gallon in most villages.

In parts of the state where jobs are scarce and a dollar often hard to come by, the economic incentive to bootleg is undeniably huge. This is one of the reasons the 2009 U.S. Justice Department study cites to explain why prohibition in rural, Western Alaska failed to lower crime rates or reduce injury accidents in a Nebraska-sized section of the country's largest state.

Reduced rates of crime and lower accident rates are what Alaska's prohibition was to have brought. Instead, it has delivered little but a new class of criminals -- people caught trafficking alcohol or sometimes even just hauling it home for their own consumption. Rural prohibition, some economists might argue, is making criminals of the very people rural villages need most -- the people with an entrepreneurial spirit.

"Western Alaska," the Justice study says, "may have experienced what most other U.S. prohibition efforts have experienced: the demand for alcohol may be strong enough to motivate bootleggers to overcome whatever obstacles law enforcement places before them."

Western Alaska is the focal point for the Alaska Trooper's acclaimed Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team (WAANT), a cooperative effort with the Alaska National Guard and others. This is the 49th state's version of Eliot Ness and "The Untouchables." WAANT works closely with the the Alaska Interdiction Task Force, funded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Justice study lauds the work of both. The troopers and DEA are very, very good at catching people and putting them in jail, but this doesn't appear to have any effect on crime or accidents in rural Alaska, said criminologist Daryl Wood, one of the report's authors. Maybe, Wood said, this would change if a lot more money were spent on interdiction and prosecution, and yeast, sugar and sugar-laced products -- the ingredients for home brew -- were as tightly controlled as alcohol.

Jim Valcarce, a Bethel lawyer, only half tongue-in-cheek suggests there might be a quicker and easier solution: Just throw everyone in jail. Valcarce is outspoken in the belief the existing approach to dealing with alcohol problems in the region is both misguided and ineffective. 

"It just does not work," he said. "All this money spent on prosecutors, investigators, jails ... put right down the honey bucket. And our governor just wants to keep dumping in more (money).

"Yet nothing is being spent on programs to make life better: education, treatment or even better, programs designed by the villages or communities to take care of their own."

Whether the latter sort of programs would work, no one knows, Valcarce concedes. But he and others point out that the Justice study shows that the strategy of prohibition in much of rural Alaska isn't working.

The hope for decades has been that the war against alcohol would extirpate the scourge of booze in rural areas and help end a sad history of violence, sex abuse and alcohol-fueled accidents. Those living in rural Alaska now can only wonder what went wrong. The booze remains, but a lot of village residents have left for jail.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com