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Wet, damp or dry, Alaska communities suffer scourge of alcohol abuse

  • Author: Elise Patkotak
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published March 31, 2015

It's a heartbreaking story full of tragedy, sadness and pain. It's the story of alcohol in Alaska, and specifically the attempts of people in small Alaska villages to mitigate the damage by controlling the flow. Unfortunately, decades after the passage of Alaska's local option laws, liquor in one form or another is available throughout Bush Alaska. And the recent pictures on the front page of this paper of people in Bethel speaking out against a liquor store just brought to mind once again how difficult a situation it is.

The reality is that people who want to drink will find something to drink. Alcohol can be found in all sorts of places that you and I would probably not look. I've seen people mixing Coke with aftershave lotion and with cleaning products like Pine Sol. People will make homemade liquor or risk jail time to bring liquor back home with them. Alcohol addiction is potent, and no amount of wet, damp or dry laws will ever be stronger than that need for one more drink before bed.

Those of us who lived in Bush Alaska watched this drama play out over the years with difficult-to-assess results. There are those who say that going dry just pushes the problem underground. There are those who say that we can't calculate a negative; i.e., we can't know what tragedies didn't occur because a village was dry. The truth is that prohibition has never really worked well in any iteration. Village corporations and village governments have looked at operating liquor stores in the past in order to capture some of the revenue that otherwise flows directly out of town to either legitimate retailers or bootleggers. To say that this creates a level of tension and conflict almost impossible to really gauge is to put it mildly.

Controlling the flow of liquor into a village is difficult when village borders are so porous. One village may be dry and the one downriver may be damp and the one a few miles in the other direction may be wet. All those villages are connected by boat or Ski-Doo as well as by plane. Keeping liquor out of a village is impossible.

For many, the idea that their local government or corporation will be responsible for the liquor in their village is anathema. They view alcohol as the root of most of the evil they deal with in their communities. Having that liquor sold by an entity to which they belong seems very, very wrong. But that same entity, be it a village corporation looking to provide its members with an annual dividend or a village council looking for a revenue stream that will allow it to provide needed public services, finds it hard to accept that all the money involved in the liquor trade is bypassing them. If the money is going to be spent on liquor anyway, why shouldn't they get a cut of the profits that they can then put it to good use in their communities?

So the debate continues. Villages all over Alaska go from wet to dry to damp and back again as people struggle to find some accommodation with a substance that is seemingly an intractable part of their lives. The pain heard in the voices of those opposing its legitimate sale in a village is real. The pain that alcohol abuse causes every year in these villages is staggering. But isn't that just the point? Even when the sale of alcohol is illegal, it's still there in vast quantities, affecting the quality of life for every family in that village.

During almost 30 years in Barrow, I watched the town jump from one status to another with monotonous frequency. When it went dry, there would be a sudden drop in alcohol-related crimes. And then, inexorably, the statistics would start to climb back up again as alternative methods of importation were accessed.

I hope the people of Bethel come to some resolution on this issue that does not leave the town as angry and divided as some wet/dry/damp campaigns I've seen in the past. I hope even more that they find a way to deal with the problems of substance abuse in their villages because, like death and taxes, we are guaranteed that, so long as someone wants it badly enough, alcohol will appear in the driest of communities.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and a local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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