Angoon voters could decide this fall if their island in the rain forest will stay dry.
Alcohol possession is illegal in Angoon, a predominantly Tlingit Native town with about 500 residents on Admiralty Island, accessible only by sea and air. It is 55 miles southwest of Juneau.
People still find alcohol, said Jess Daniels, Angoon's former police officer and leader of the petition drive to put Angoon's dry status back before voters. He refers to it as a "supposedly dry community. They get it in any way they can."
This month he turned in 123 signatures from registered voters seeking to challenge Angoon's prohibition on the October ballot. He said by law the measure should need only 75 to make the ballot.
Angoon's mayor said he doesn't want to talk about it and wouldn't say if the petition was certified and would be on the ballot.
"It's people in the community" is all Walter Jack would say when asked about the petition seeking the ballot measure in October.
A successful vote wouldn't allow alcohol sales - just importation and possession. It would make Angoon "damp."
Daniels said bootlegged booze is pricey.
"I just got tired of people paying a high price for their alcohol," he said.
Angoon residents "have the option of bringing it in or buying it for $50 to $60 a bottle," he said. It doesn't seem to matter what sort of alcoholic beverage is in the bottle, he added.
Prohibition came to territorial Alaska in 1918, two years before a constitutional amendment outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States. After the 18th Amendment's repeal in 1933, much of Alaska remained dry. Now Alaska law allows communities to decide if they want to restrict alcohol.
Angoon is the only dry community in Southeast Alaska, except for Metlakatla, which is dry by federal mandate as Alaska's only federal Native reservation, according to Matt Felix, executive director for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau. Farther north there are more than 100 dry communities in the state.
Law enforcement officers agree booze is an expensive commodity in villages that ban it.
In May, when troopers arrested 16 people after a four-month investigation into alcohol and drug trafficking in Arctic Circle villages, troopers reported a 750-milliliter bottle of whiskey that costs less than $10 in Anchorage could go for $100 in some dry villages.
Gov. Frank Murkowski mentioned the high price of alcohol in dry Alaska villages while urging people at the 2004 Alaska Federation of Natives convention to fight a statewide ballot measure to decriminalize marijuana. He placed the dry-village value of 170 bottles of liquor, 204 cans of beer and 18.5 ounces of marijuana troopers had recently seized at $46,000.
Daniels, who said he doesn't drink, left his job as Angoon's only police officer in February 2004 and has not been replaced. State troopers from Juneau now have jurisdiction in Angoon.
Daniels used to arrest people sometimes for bringing in alcohol, but he only searched people's luggage if he had a tip they might be bringing in contraband, he said. "That was when somebody was mad at someone else."
He wasn't living in Angoon when the community voted to go dry in the 1980s, he said. Now, with more people, he thinks it's time for another vote.
"Hopefully, we still live in a democracy," he said.
Legalizing alcohol in Angoon would make matters worse, Felix said. "We feel pretty strongly they shouldn't move from the position of being dry."
Felix allowed that some people may find harm in restricting alcohol. "People may say, if a man wasn't on his boat headed toward a liquor store in Hoonah, he wouldn't have drowned," he suggested. The number of such cases is dwarfed by the number of deaths attributed to ready access, though, he said.
"Availability is a factor," he said. "Price is a factor."
He pointed to studies that back him up.
A paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, concluded that measures limiting access to alcohol in remote Alaska may decrease alcohol-related deaths from injury.
"In a geographically isolated community, the prohibition of alcohol can be an effective public health intervention, reducing the health problems associated with alcohol use," the JAMA article concluded.
An article in the Alaska Justice Forum in 2004 concluded that Native villages are safer places when alcohol is prohibited.
The study specifically addressed the effect of prohibition on Native populations, using remote communities in Alaska where environment makes importation more difficult than on reservations elsewhere in the country. It found the alcohol-related injury mortality rate among Alaska Natives was three times greater in wet communities than in dry communities.
It looked at Barrow, the country's northernmost community, where the sun doesn't rise between Nov. 18 and Jan. 24. During a 33-month period, possession and importation of alcohol were legal, then completely banned, made legal again and then banned again, the article stated.
In the fall of 1994, law enforcement's "substance-related calls" went from 211 the month before the ban to 33 the month after the ban.
In 2001, Barrow voters passed an ordinance that created a system requiring people to have permits to buy alcohol. To hold a permit people must be 21 and have no difficulty with the law. They also are limited in the amount of alcohol they can buy in a month and must be sober when they pick it up.
The arrangement seems a workable compromise after years of struggling with the issue, said Deborah Lyn, special assistant to Barrow's mayor.
"It really was an issue that divided our community," she said.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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