Study finds Alaska villages that prohibit alcohol are safer

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006

ANCHORAGE - A study finds that villages that ban alcohol are significantly safer than those that don't and they have fewer serious assaults.

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The study found that those same villages are even safer when they have law enforcement officers, said co-author Darryl Wood, of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center.

The study examined death certificates and state trauma records for 132 off-road villages between 1991 and 2000. It found that dry villages had 52 percent fewer serious assaults than damp or wet villages. Dry villages with a police presence had 36 percent fewer serious assaults than dry villages without a police presence.

Alcohol in the Bush has been linked to the large number of village suicides, domestic violence, homicides and accidents.

To stem the tide of liquor flowing to the Bush and to decrease alcohol-related deaths and injuries, about 80 villages have capitalized on state laws passed in the 1980s allowing prohibition through local elections.

But villages often waver. Residents in Togiak and Nulato, for example, are considering rolling back local prohibition and permitting alcohol sales. A citizens' effort to take Angoon from dry to damp recently failed by a close margin.

Studies on American Indian reservations in the Lower 48 add to the uncertainty. They've shown that suicides, homicides and motor-vehicle collisions are higher on reservations that ban alcohol. Wood said that's because reservations have a relatively available supply of alcohol from highway bootleggers. And when they get a shipment, they tend to binge-drink.

Prohibition in Alaska's rural communities is more effective, Wood said, because alcohol is harder to get. It must be smuggled in by plane or boat.

Also, residents in Bush communities take on bigger watchdog roles, said co-author Paul Gruenewald with the California-based Prevention Research Center. The center studies alcohol and drug misuse around the nation with a focus on prevention.

Many Alaska communities remain skeptical, and only a handful of new villages have gone dry after the big rush of the 1980s and 1990s, said Doug Griffin, director of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

In Southeast Alaska, Angoon residents last fall narrowly rejected a proposal to go from dry to "damp," which would have allowed possession and consumption but not local sales.

Prohibition is a step in the right direction, Griffin said. Communities that ban alcohol have tough punishments for bootleggers and are generally safer and healthier, he said.

George Nicholai, who runs Bethel's public safety officer program in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, said making alcohol possession against the law is almost meaningless with so few lawmen in the Bush.

The VPSO program, the face of village law enforcement, has dwindled over the last 12 years as the state has scaled back money for the program. The number of officers has fallen from 100 in 1994 to 51 today.

The shortage is especially acute in Western Alaska. For example, there are 56 villages scattered across the delta, but the state pays for only 20 officers there, said Nicholai, who works for the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents.

Only 14 villages have filled their VPSO slots because of low wages, Nicholai said.

The state is trying to improve the program and recently gave new recruits a raise. They now make $16.55 an hour. The state's median wage in 2004 was about $20 an hour.

Only about 75 of the state's 180 or so off-road villages have a local police department, a public safety officer or a troopers post, Wood said.

About 15 additional villages have a tribal officer, but they may not be trained and can only make citizen's arrests if they witness a crime, he said.

The remainder of the state's villages have no local law enforcement. When major crimes occur, they wait for state troopers to fly in from regional posts. That can take hours and be extremely dangerous, Nicholai said.

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