Prohibition in Alaska's bush. Villagers, tired of drinking crime and violence, push for option to ban alcoholic beverages

Last summer, a private pilot grabbed some beers and rounded up three people for a late-night flight to the nearest liquor store, 140 miles from his Bethel, Alaska, home. He made his purchase from innkeepers in the town of Red Devil, then he and his passengers climbed back into his small plane for the flight home. They never made it. The plane crashed on takeoff and all aboard were killed. An autopsy showed the pilot was drunk.

The incident drew attention to Red Devil, a Kuskokwim River mining town with about three dozen year-round residents.

Red Devil is one of the few places where liquor is sold in the Kuskokwim Valley, in western Alaska. This is because most of the dozens of predominantly Yupik Eskimo villages along the river have exercised an option under current state law which allows them to ban local sale and import of alcohol.

But the law has not halted the alcohol-related crime and violence that residents of the villages say terrorizes their communities, breaks up families, and destroys their culture.

Many villagers point to Red Devil and other liquor outlets as the reason, despite their wishes, that they've been unable to stem the flow of alchohol to their communities.

So natives in the region and elsewhere in Alaska have pleaded with the Legislature to strengthen the state's local-option law: They also want the authority -- by majority vote -- to make possession of alcohol illegal within a community.

The Legislature is expected this spring to approve a bill, supported by the governor, giving rural communities the ability to ban alcohol possession, an aide to state Sen. John Sackett says. Senator Sackett, an Athapaskan Indian and a powerful member of the Legislature, traveled to 18 communities this past winter to listen to residents discuss solutions to communities' drinking problems.

Village residents say prohibition is the key to reasserting local control over alcohol use, and its advocacy is seen as an acknowledgment that government programs have failed to deal effectively with the problems alcohol causes.

Alaska has one of the world's highest per capita rates of alcohol consumption. Average annual consumption in Alaska in the last 25 years has increased by 80 percent, double the rate for the period in the rest of the country. Alcohol abuse is widely considered to be the No. 1 health problem in rural Alaska, says Bill Richards, who counsels Eskimo and Indian drinkers in Anchorage.

To reduce drinking, Alaska officials have launched nonprofit social services with an array of educational, legal, and prevention programs, Mr. Richards says, but he adds, ``Despite the good programs and the raised consciousnesses, Alaska's alcohol problems haven't abated.''

Rural Alaska is one of the nation's most impoverished areas. In the view of Mr. Richards and others, Alaskan Native drinking is a result of demoralization and loss of control and of traditional roles and values. It is indistinguishable from ``poverty drinking'' in urban ghettos, they say.

Villagers' attempts to prohibit access to alcohol is seen by University of Alaska researcher Stephen Conn, an expert on rural legal problems, as part of the grass-roots effort to reassert local autonomy.

The villagers' call for the prohibition option has more to do with their desire for local control than for an external answer to the problem, according to Tom Lonner, who while a professor at the University of Alaska conducted a study on rural alcohol use three years ago for the state Legislature.

According to the study, village elders can recall the time, before Alaska statehood, in 1959, when the federal government prohibited Native Alaskans from possessing alcohol.

Alcohol abuse was not much of a problem then, Professor Conn said, because there was little money in the Bush and no organized distribution network. The drinking that occurred was closely controlled within the communities, which operate like a large family.

But Conn says going back to this type of existence is not possible. Modern communications and transportation have made villages in Alaska less isolated. As long as places like Red Devil decline to ban alcohol sales and are easily accessible to neighboring villages, prohibition is unlikely to work, Conn says.

Rather than leave alcohol control to individual villages, Conn advocates regional solutions. He proposes giving state health officials authority -- on the basis of crime and public health statistics -- to declare a regional alcohol-related emergency which would involve a crackdown on bootleggers and trading posts supplying the affected villages.

``The obligation would rest with the state to put down the emergency. They'd throw their resources into suspending sales, possession, and use until the crisis passed,'' he says.

Legal challenges to the bill that would allow villages the option to ban possession of alchohol are expected.

Alaska's constitution has a strong right-to-privacy provision that was used to establish the right for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana in their homes for personal use.

``The [state] Supreme Court said [alcohol] consumption is not a fundamental right; it can be regulated if the government can show an unmistakable link between alcohol and things like poor health, suicide, violence, and child neglect,'' Conn says.

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