Experiment fails: Alaska villages again go dry

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Two Native Alaska villages that voted last fall to relax their alcohol laws have voted for prohibition again after finding their communities couldn't handle booze.

Pilot Station, on the lower Yukon River, and Atqasuk, on the North Slope, had been dry for years when they voted in October to allow alcohol. But alcohol brought too many problems, villagers said.

"The people here have shown how irresponsible they can be," said Atqasuk Mayor Elizabeth Hollingsworth. "No matter how bad it was, it was good that people got to see it. We still don't know how to drink here."

Atqasuk overturned its wet status Tuesday. Pilot Station voters banned the sale and importation of alcohol in March.

All of Alaska has above-average rates of alcohol use and abuse, according to the state Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Recent studies have shown Alaska first in the nation for alcohol-related deaths and near the top for drunken driving and alcohol-related vehicle fatalities.

But the problems are compounded in rural Alaska, where the percentage of problem drinkers is higher than the statewide average, experts say.

A 1999 study noted that Alaska Natives are 50 percent more likely to have lifetime alcohol dependency problems than non-Native Alaskans. Alcohol is listed frequently as a contributing factor in the state's high rates of suicide and domestic abuse.

To combat the problem, more than 100 Alaska communities restrict alcohol. Seventy-six are dry, banning sale and importation. Another 19 villages are damp, allowing alcohol to be imported but not sold. A few villages control the flow of alcohol through city-owned liquor stores or by allowing package store licenses, but no bars.

Pilot Station, a village of 550 people, had been dry since 1985. Last summer, a group of residents asked for another referendum, and in October voters overwhelmingly favored going damp.

That new freedom came with a cost, said Abe Kelly, the Pilot Station postmaster and City Council member. Some parents were drinking up the family's food budget, he said, and teenagers went to community functions drunk. The village public safety officer quit because so many people were calling for help. Two tribal village police officers were fired for drinking on the job.

The number of sexual assault cases rose from "maybe one or less a month to sometimes three in a week," said Alaska State Trooper Brian Miller. Fights and beatings increased as well, as people from surrounding dry villages came to Pilot Station for booze.

"There were just too many problems," Kelly said.

Atqasuk, with a population of 250, had been dry since 1994, but alcohol has been available. Barrow, 60 miles north, controls liquor importation through a community dispensary, but it's legal to possess. Some inevitably gets to Atqasuk.

But when the village went wet last November, a change was evident immediately, Mayor Hollingsworth said. Some workers showed up late or skipped their jobs altogether. School attendance slipped. Students were kept up late by partying parents or were exhausted from taking care of younger siblings, she said.

As in Pilot Station, elders of Atqasuk led the drive to go dry, City Council member Gail Wong said.

Atqasuk voted Tuesday but doesn't go dry until May 1.

"It's going to be a long two weeks," Hollingsworth said.

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