ANCHORAGE - The trickle of booze flowing into two rural Alaska villages is likely to increase after voters liberalized their alcohol-control laws.
That will please drinkers and people who want to strip bootleggers of profits, but others in Pilot Station, Atqasuk and surrounding villages fear alcohol-related accidents and crimes will rise as liquor becomes easy to buy.
It's a ripple effect, said Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Duke Ballard of Bethel. A dry village that goes damp or wet quickly becomes a powerful attractant, he said.
"Everybody who likes to drink is going to the village that's wet," often with tragic consequences, he said.
Alcohol abuse is rampant in Alaska cities, towns and villages and is a frequent factor in crimes, accidents and suicides.
The state allows communities to decide for themselves whether to limit access to alcohol. Twenty villages have banned the sale of alcohol and 75 prohibit its sale and importation. Thirty others ban possession, which by law is a lesser offense that can be handled by village authorities rather than troopers.
On Oct. 1, the lower Yukon River village of Pilot Station voted to go damp after 17 years as a dry village. The measure had wide support, passing 93-52, said tribal administrator Martin Kelly.
People supported it for a variety of reasons, he said, from eliminating business for bootleggers to enabling residents to buy booze without making a risky trip up or down the river. Since 1985, Kelly said, "If I wanted a beer, I had to go to Anchorage."
But for many Pilot Station residents, the vote was a question of self-determination, Kelly said.
"We look toward bettering our community, and one of our obstacles is having the alcohol factor. If it's controlled and well-regulated, I think we can tackle it," he said.
On the other hand, he added, "If alcohol becomes a problem again, I think it'll be back on the ballot."
Far to the north, similar concerns are rising about the vote in Atqasuk, a village of fewer than 300 people about 60 miles south of Barrow. Atqasuk had been dry since 1994, but last month voters eliminated all community controls on alcohol. Now someone can apply for a license to open a bar, liquor store or nightclub, said Doug Griffin of the state's Alcohol Beverage Control Board.
Barrow allows alcohol to be imported but not sold. It also monitors how much each person can bring in, and its community-run dispensary releases booze only to Barrow residents.
But if someone opens a bar or nightclub in Atqasuk, some people in Barrow fear what might happen when the ice road between the two communities is built every winter, said Susan Rinker, director of the North Slope Borough's Department of Health and Social Services.
"If (Atqasuk) becomes a tourist attraction and exotic entertainment location, it could be dangerous" to have people driving on the construction road in a car or snowmachine, Rinker said.