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Perils of Prohibition: Alaska's failed war on booze

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 3, 2013

EDITOR'S NOTE: For three decades, alcohol has anchored the debate about the future of rural Alaska. That liquor and homebrew spread havoc in villages across the state is undeniable, but the evidence seems clear that the effort to stamp out booze with an Alaska version of Prohibition hasn't stopped the abuse, or the misery that often surfaces in its wake. In this ongoing series, Alaska Dispatch examines the failures of the state's war on alcohol and why a better, but more difficult solution is to address the many reasons people abuse alcohol in the first place.

Alaska's war on alcohol, a costly and painful crusade waged for decades in remote villages across the rural vastness of the 49th state, has failed to help the very people it aimed to save. It has split communities, damaged families and sent an endless stream of young men to jail. Worse for the long run, it has stolen attention and resources away from the real causes of grief and dysfunction in Bush Alaska.

Only rarely is this battle called a war, although that is what it is: Alaska's parallel to the national War on Drugs that has ripped apart the urban ghettos of America. The world of rural Alaska is not unlike the ghetto. The poverty, unemployment, crime, family turmoil and human suffering are much alike.

Alaska's war has cost, and continues to cost, the state and the federal government millions of dollars. A study done for the U.S. Justice Department (PDF) that looked at just one corner of the state put the expenses for law enforcement and prosecutors alone at a minimum of $5 million from 2002-2007. Not included in that estimate were the costs of housing and transporting an average of 303 people arrested every year during that time, or of paying the public defenders who represented most of them, or of the cost of housing, feeding and caring for those sent to prison.

By one measure, the war has been hugely successful. It has led to the arrest of thousands and sent many to jail. Managing to arrest some 1,500 people in an area home to only about 15,000 in just five years, as the Justice study indicates, is a sizable accomplishment.

Sadly, however, according to the same report, the arrests have not stopped or even slowed the epidemic of suicide, accidental death, and violence that plagues the remote, Nebraska-sized section of Western Alaska that was studied:

While the program was found to (be) well designed and executed, we did not find that it had a statistically significant impact on the targeted outcomes of reduced crime, accidental deaths, or injuries," the report concludes. "One of the plausible explanations for this finding is that the program is simply ineffective. It is possible that smugglers are finding alternative means of evading detection using air transportation, or are using alternatives to air transport. Local production of alcohol may offset whatever gains the RAI (Rural Alcohol Interdiction) Program makes in deterring smuggling or seizing bootlegged alcohol. Western Alaska 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.

"You're having an effect," said criminologist Daryl Wood, one of the prime authors of that Justice analysis, "but not the one you want."

On the ground in Southwest, Bethel lawyer Jim Valcarce said the only real and obvious effect of the war has been to create a new industry that cycles a seemingly endless loop of people, most of them Alaska Natives, through the legal and prison systems.

"One bottle -- one drunk -- employs hundreds of people around here," Valcarce said. "Everyone gets to help solve this so-called problem: the hospital, the sleep-off center staff, then the court system, the prosecutors, the law enforcement, the fire department/EMT, the cab drivers, air carriers, pilots, lawyers, then all the jail staff."

Wood, who spent about a dozen years in Alaska with the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center before moving on to Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash., and Valcarce, are among the few people in the state close to this issue willing to say these things publicly, though there are plenty of others who will talk about them privately.

One state criminologist said he feared losing his job if he spoke openly of the failure of Alaska's prohibition. The "alcohol narrative," as he called it, has taken over the discussion of most crime in Alaska. Alcohol has become both the perfect scapegoat and the most convenient, most politically expedient explanation for the state's many dysfunctions.

A smaller problem than believed?

When assistant professor Brad Myrstol, director of the UAA Justice Center's statistical analysis center, studied the perceptions of the Anchorage Police Department, he found police thought alcohol to be a factor in a majority of crimes. Almost 80 percent of APD officers agreed "alcohol related incidents are a 'serious drain' on department resources," according to his study. But when Myrstol looked at how much time was actually spent on dealing with alcohol-related crime, he found it was a small percentage.

"Even when alcohol-related activities are examined in the context of other activities, rather than all events, the sum total of time spent on them fails to reach 10 percent," the study concluded.

Myrstol said the study speaks for itself. The perception of police officers, he said, could differ from the reality for any number of reasons, high among them the fact obnoxious, drunken criminals can leave a lasting impression.

There is no doubt alcohol is a problem in Alaska. At any time of the day you can find drunks stumbling around in any major city in Alaska, and in many villages, too.

No one involved in the study of crime in Alaska denies alcohol abuse is a problem, but a growing number of people examining the issue have come to the conclusion that the decades-long focus on alcohol has side-tracked any discussion of deeper, underlying problems leading people to drink, especially in rural Alaska.

Alcohol loosens inhibitions and in that way lubricates a fair amount of crime everywhere in the world. That is a fact in rural Alaska, as it is in Anchorage or Fairbanks or Wasilla. But sitting down to enjoy a glass of wine or drink a beer, or two or three or more, does not necessarily lead to crime. Crime is a complicated problem, and the drinking connected to it is often more symptom than cause, according to those who have studied the issue at length.

As researchers in Canada have noted, "although there exists a strong correlational relationship between alcohol and violent crime, the nature of the evidence prohibits the establishment of a causal link."

Those intimately familiar with rural Alaska say alcohol there in particular appears far more a symptom of many problems than the problem itself. People self-medicate with alcohol -- often foul-tasting home brew -- even though it is banned in more than 100 of the state's villages.

In May, the drink killed 57-year-old Ramona Rose Waskey of Mountain Village, a Yukon River community of 755. Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Aaron Mobley attributed her death to an overdose of a vile substance he called the "PCP of alcohol." Mountain Village is one of those rural Alaska villages where alcohol is banned.

Mobley refused to clarify exactly what he meant by the "PCP of alcohol," referring questions instead to an official department spokesperson. Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said Mobley was trying to illustrate that the local home brew is "not a predictable beverage" and "that people act different on homebrew than other alcohol."

Mountain Village police officer Jordan Queenie, one of the unseen people fighting in the tough front lines of the state's war on alcohol, said the brew is easy to make and appears capable of getting people drunk rather quickly. The basic ingredients are hot water, yeast and sugar, he said, but there is no telling what people might add for flavor.

"They leave it for about 24 hours" to ferment, Queenie said. "They sell it for $50 a gallon, and it gets you pretty high."

Asked why people are willing to pay $50 for a gallon of rot gut, he said, "I have no idea. They just need to get drunk."

The "need to get drunk" is the huge, frozen, prehistoric moolly mammoth haunting discussions of alcohol problems in rural Alaska, and it is something no one really wants to publicly discuss because the reasons why get quickly complicated and difficult.

A partial list would include:

• Racism
• Lack of jobs
• Being caught between the subsistence economy of old and the cash economy of today
• Young women leaving villages for urban areas, sometimes leaving badly skewed sex ratios
• Simmering tensions of domestic and sexual violence
• The legacy of sexually abusive priests
• Overpowering idleness

Add to all this the simple, unfulfilled desires for a better life, fueled by television shows and Internet media that make rural young people in particular want the comfortable, easy lifestyle that everyone in America seems to enjoy.

Instead of trying to address such complicated problems, it is much easier to blame alcohol and wage a war against it.

The concept is simple: If we just make people stop drinking, things will get better. But as Prohibition proved in America, as prison keepers throughout time have known, as rural Alaska villages have discovered over the course of the past three decades of "dryness," you can't really stop people from drinking.

Victims all around

Take a morning any day to sit in the well-kept state courthouse in Bethel, and you will witness a seemingly endless stream of brown faces dragged before white judges and lawyers to face justice. This is the way it is day in and day out, said Valcarce, month in and month out, year in and year out.

Villagers funnel into the "hub community," as Alaskans know Bethel, from the far corners of a sparsely-populated Western Alaska region bigger in size than 34 states. To most villagers, Bethel, a riverside community of about 6,000 some 400 miles almost due west of Anchorage, is a city. It has a Subway fast-food franchise, a supermarket, a number of restaurants, a fleet of taxis, running water, indoor plumbing, and even some paved roads.

Villagers come here regularly to shop, meet relatives or consult with political leaders or government officials. Most of the jobs in the city are government jobs. A fair number of those government jobs are involved in processing those charged with crimes.

Most of the crimes involve alcohol in one way or another. Alcohol is both an enabler and a tool in this part of the world. It provides people an excuse to do what they wouldn't do sober, and a drug with which to sedate victims.

Sexual assault, a problem everywhere in Alaska, runs rampant in the region.

In the village of Scammon Bay to the northwest of Bethel, on the south bank of the Kun River just a mile from the Bering Sea in treeless Western Alaska, there live 273 males and 223 females, according to the latest Census. Twelve of the males are registered sex offenders: one sex offender for every 19 women. The median age in the village is 17.6. More than half the females are under age 19. There is no treatment program for sex offenders in this village or in most others. Most offenders sent home to live in these villages settle within sight of their victims.

The ratio of sex offenders to women in Scammon Bay is high, but it is not particularly unusual. In Hooper Bay, the largest village in the Wade Hampton Census Area (of which Scammon Bay is part), there are 555 females and 26 registered sex offenders, all of whom are men. There is one sex offender for every 21 females. The median age of village residents is 22.1.

The Wade Hampton Census Area is the youngest and poorest corner of America. It stretches across an area twice the size of Massachusetts out on the treeless tundra delta formed where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers meet the Bering Sea.

Nearly 8,000 people now live in little settlements dotted along the rivers and the coast in the area. More than 40 percent of them are under the age of 18. More than 93 percent are Alaska Natives. Thirty percent of them struggle to survive below the poverty level. The rest are not far above it. Average income is $11,476, according to the U.S. Census, or a little less than $1,000 a month. It is reportedly possible to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean for less than $1,000 per month, but in the Caribbean food is cheaper, and there is no need for fuel to heat your home to avoid freezing to death.

A gallon of milk in Bethel costs $9. It is even more expensive in outlying villages.

To survive on such meager incomes, rural Alaskans are usually forced to combine their resources and live together in one- or two-room homes. Often they are crowded with five, six, seven or more people. In every village but one, the number of men and boys outnumber the women and girls.

"Historically," Science Magazine writer and "Unnatural Selection" author Mara Hvistendahl has observed, "societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live. Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent."

Some demographers now point to a "youth bulge" as one of the key elements fueling political unrest and violence in Egypt. Internationally, young men are responsible for three-quarters of all violent crimes, notes Daniel LaGraffe, a fellow in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense involved in the study of Egypt.

Unemployment only tends to add to the problem of youthful aggression and crime, according to sociologists. Unemployment now runs at more than 20 percent in Wade Hampton villages, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.

State economists say that grossly underestimates the number of people out of work. A lot of folks have just given up looking for jobs. They survive as best they can on the harvest of fish and wildlife, and various sorts of support from the state and federal governments with occasional dividends from the Alaska Native corporations formed under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Sometimes, to heat their homes in the bitter cold of the Alaska winter, they have to choose between spending their limited cash on expensive heating oil or gas for a snowmachine so they can go find cheaper driftwood to burn in a woodstove at home. Sometimes, those who go for driftwood run into disaster and don't make it home. And sometimes, Valcarce said, people decide to commit a crime or intentionally injure themselves just to get away. Men in this part of rural Alaska joke about prison as "the men's house." Any stigma associated with being arrested has largely disappeared from the area.

Filmmaker Beth Edwards from Indiana went to Hooper Bay several years ago and shot a documentary titled, "The Yup'ik Way." In it, Shaun Murran, distraught that the homebrew he planned to sell has been stolen, looks into the camera and says: "I might as well just stab myself and get a free trip to Bethel," the closest thing to a city in the region.

Valcarce lives in Bethel. He is a white man married to a Native woman. His children are half Native. He is close to his wife's large family. When he is in Anchorage on business one day, he brings with him a nephew from Hooper Bay, a community of about 1,000 on the edge of the Bering Sea. Over lattes at an Anchorage coffee house, the conversation turns to the issue of alcohol in Western Alaska and how often people go to jail. Valcarce finally turns to his nephew and asks the young man if he knows anyone who hasn't been arrested for something.

There is a long pause, a long, long pause. And then finally the nephew says he "thinks" he knows someone, and spits out a name. The conversation rolls on afterward. Valcarce admits he's frustrated by what has happened around and in Bethel, his home now, for decades. Almost forever it seems, the solution to the problems plaguing that rural corner of the state, and other rural areas, has been to try to stomp out booze. Valcarce echoes the conclusions in the Justice report: The alcohol war is not working; it's just making more problems.

Nobody wants to believe him.

Back home in Bethel, weeks later, he one day emails a message that "we have to get rid of this current governor." That would be Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, among the many who believe that the answer to alcohol problems in Alaska is more and stronger laws. But Parnell is far from alone in this belief.

People all across Alaska have bought into that thinking, including the majority of citizens in the many rural Alaska villages who have voted their towns dry. It is illegal to bring alcohol into those villages or possess it there. People drink anyway. A lot of what they drink is bad home brew, which killed Waskey in Mountain Village. But people will happily drink something better if they can get it. The desire is such that the Alaska State Troopers claim bootleggers can make a $15 return on each dollar invested in a bottle of liquor compared to a return of only $1.50 on a dollar spent on cocaine for resale.

The lure of this sort of profit on investment encourages a lot of bootlegging in rural Alaska. Still, Wood, the criminologist, isn't sure whether it's the bootleg liquor or the home brew that continues to fuel all sort of problems linked in some way or another to alcohol abuse in the villages.

What he does know is that the long-running War on Alcohol has done nothing to curb the problems connected to alcohol abuse no matter how much money has been spent and how many people have gone to jail. The existing solution -- an Alaska form of Prohibition -- just isn't working, he said.

NEXT: The 'drunk Indian' stereotype

The 95-page report Wood helped compile -- "Evaluation of the Rural Alaska Alcohol Interdiction, Investigation, and Prosecution Program" -- was finished on March 31, 2008, and delivered to Justice in August 2009, according to government records. It has been gathering dust ever since.

Wood, who has spent his life investigating alcohol and crime in the North and continues to do so, has now moved on to studies in Canada. He doubts that anything in rural Alaska has changed since he left. He does not know why the Justice report never became a focus for discussion in a state that seems stuck on spending ever more on the War on Alcohol in the belief that further criminalizing booze is the best way to solve bigger problems.

Alaska Native John Tetpon, once a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News and later a spokesman for the Alaska Federation of Natives, tends to agree with Valcarce's assessment that the War on Alcohol is just making things worse in rural Alaska, especially for Native men who get drunk and end up in all sorts of trouble.

"I agree that there are sex crimes perpetrated by Native men in rural Alaska," he said in an email. "Most do it under the influence of some kind of drugs or alcohol or both. But the underlying reasons for all the drinking and drugging beg for an examination.

"The symptoms are assaults and sex crimes. There won't be any progress until and unless the illnesses, and there are quite a few, are addressed. Finally."

The first step to solving problems, psychiatrists say, is to talk about them. But there are problems in rural Alaska no one wants to talk about. It's so much easier to talk about booze.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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