Rural Alaska

Booze in the Bush: a tale of two villages

Alaska villages wet dry liquorMarvin Berry thought loosening the alcohol laws in his home village of Selawik would be a good idea, and he successfully petitioned to make the matter a ballot issue. A month ago, voters crushed his idea with an overwhelming "no" vote. But more than 30 miles away, a different story is playing out. For the first time in 21 years, villagers in Kiana have voted to allow city-controlled liquor sales.

Fresh out of jail and looking to make liquor a part of his past, Berry, 47, is glad his measure failed in Selawik. He's lived in the village his entire life, with alcohol a near-constant companion. He first started drinking as a teenager. His drinking tapered off in his 30s, but when his dad died a few years ago, things worsened. Without a strong force to dissuade them, Berry and his brothers started drinking more frequently. It got bad enough that Berry started missing flights to work, which cost him a janitorial job at Red Dog Mine.

Alaska communities have the right to enact stricter liquor laws than those enforced by the state. They can choose to go completely dry and ban all imports, sales and possession, or to select some variation in between. Under state law, a person can purchase or ship 10 1/2 liters of hard liquor, 24 liters of wine and 12 gallons of beer in a single transaction. Selawik and Kiana have been "damp" for years -- allowing possession but not the sale or importation of alcohol, according to the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

One of the reasons Berry pushed going wet in Selawik is his fear about the harm people desperate to get a buzz will inflict on themselves.

"They are eating alcohol that's not done, drinking hair sprays and Lysol -- one can of Lysol can get three guys drunk and pass out," he said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Selawik.

A good friend is nearly blind, and Berry believes "drinking" Lysol spray disinfectant is to blame. Another acquaintence recently died -- from a life of drinking home brew, Berry suspects -- and several friends are in jail for alcohol-related crimes. Berry himself was only recently released from jail after getting caught with money stolen from the local Native store. The stint in jail cost him the ability to weigh in on the alcohol measure, as he was still in custody on election day.

Although it's not easy, Berry says he has stayed sober since his arrest. He struggled with it as recently as the day he spoke with Alaska Dispatch. Home brew, made from grape or orange juice concentrate, sugar and yeast in five-gallon buckets, is always ready for sale on the weekends, Berry said. The day of his interview he had $50 to spend on a gallon of home brew, but said he wasn't going to, as he has an elderly mother to care for and a young son to think about.

Berry initially pushed loosening Selawik's alcohol laws because, out of work, he was bored and had a vision of spending the winter drinking Crown Royal and working on his house, he said. It seemed like a better option than bootlegging or downing the household chemicals and home brew some people drink, he said.

Black market alcohol -- whether it's household products or liquor smuggled in to the village -- isn't cheap. Cans of hair spray and Lysol sell for $75 to $100 on the street, according to Berry. State troopers say imported fifths of whiskey average $150 per bottle. And to fund the fix, people can often be heard on Fridays on the local VHF radio, peddling cameras, DVDs and television sets at big discounts for quick cash, Berry said.

After last month's election, the village's alcohol laws remain unchanged. Voters chose to keep the ban on alcohol sales and importation in place.

"I voted for dry," city administrator Roger Clark said. He's seen firsthand what happens when alcohol flows freely in the community. Children suffer. They stop going to school. Drunkenness, violence and suicides increase. Life in the village can quickly become unbearable, he said. A father and grandfather, "I got every reason to keep it the way it is," he said.

But not far away, another small village, Kiana, is willing to test the waters.

Last month, Kiana voters chose to allow importation and sales to the community through city-owned liquor licenses and a city-owned distribution center. Kiana City Councilman Brad Reich sponsored the petition. He's lived in the village for 18 years, is married with three children, and works for the local Internet provider.

"No matter how you look at it, alcohol does get into a community," he said during a phone interview last week. "We have no revenue to help with the alcohol issues."

Reich sees city-run liquor sales as a way to better control the flow of alcohol, and as a way to fund the law enforcement necessary to help curtail existing problems caused by alcohol abuse. The village has a part-time Village Public Safety Officer, but through liquor sales Kiana could potentially hire one full time, Reich said. "Our main concern is to have people feel safe within our communities," he said.

While some people are resistant to the idea of liquor sales, Reich is convinced they are a way to bring alcohol problems out in the open, problems that occur despite bans and regulations.

"If we just ignore it, it's going to get bad," he said. "I know that our community can deal with this issue and I hope that other communities will learn we can deal with it and make it better for our communities, not worse."

Reich points to years earlier when he was growing up in Kotzebue, at a time when the city allowed liquor sales. Money generated from those sales helped children by funding activities like bowling alleys and recreation centers, and he hopes to see similar opportunities for children in Kiana.

Berry, the man who pushed the failed initiative to allow liquor sales in Selawik, said some people in his village may make short trips to Kiana to buy alcohol. But Reich says his city council is looking at ways to minimize Kiana's impact on other communities that have chosen to stay dry. A 30-minute snow machine ride, give or take, will get you to Selawik, 33 miles away, or to Noorvik, 25 miles away. Both villages ban sales and importation, and Kiana is thinking about blocking sales to outsiders by requiring buyers to prove they live in Kiana, according to Reich.

In wet and dry communities, many of the criminal cases law enforcement deals with involve alcohol. Drownings, assaults and search and rescues routinely keep teams busy, according to Sgt. Chris Thompson with Alaska State Troopers' Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement. Thompson oversees the unit's Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team.

Just a month ago, his team was monitoring a suspected bootlegger moving alcohol out of Nome when the operation unexpectedly turned into a rescue mission. When the weather turned bad and their boat broke down, the suspects -- with liquor on board -- made a distress call for help, Thompson said.

That kind of bad decision making, based on a desire to sell alcohol in dry communities, happens quite a bit, he said. With alcohol hard to come by, bootlegging can be lucrative. A 750 ml bottle of whiskey or vodka that sells for $10 to $11 in Anchorage can be offloaded for $60 to $80 in Bethel, or as much as $300 in island communities like Gambell and Savoonga. The harder it is to get to a community, the higher the price, notes Thompson, who said the average price in most dry, inland villages is about $150.

Like Kiana, Kotzebue and Bethel recently voted to relax alcohol laws, which is causing Thompson to shift enforcement efforts. Where before teams focused on intercepting alcohol en route to Bethel, now they'll watch whether illegal alcohol shipments are leaving town for dry communities.

Thompson says it's logical to conclude that the more alcohol flowing through a community, the more alcohol-related problems it will have. But in his experience, "alcohol-related stuff happens regardless" of whether a community is wet or dry. Either way, "we are going to enforce the law," he said.

Contact Jill Burke

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.