Why Alaska Town Is Lifting Alcohol Ban

A close vote brings to an end the one-year-old experiment with prohibition in Barrow, Alaska

IN the 1970's, writer Joe McGinness described Barrow as ''the caboose of the world'' - flush with new oil money, lubricated with alcohol, and seething with racial tension and violence.

Two decades later, the struggle in the nation's northernmost community and other Alaskan towns over restricting alcohol sales and consumption provides a window on the challenge of limiting personal freedoms while trying to correct social problems.

For the past several years in Barrow was ''damp'' - alcohol consumption was allowed but sales were banned. This past year, the town went ''dry'' - all alcoholic sales and consumption were prohibited.

But in a close referendum vote that bitterly divided ethnic groups, neighbors and families, the town reverted to ''wet'' status last week.

The 910-834 vote to reopen alcoholic taps - yet unofficial as of Friday - came over objections of the Inupiat Eskimo leaders in Barrow, a city of 4,200, and the rest of the Minnesota-sized North Slope borough, where all other villages are dry.

Benefits of the ban - won last year with a seven-vote margin - were dramatic, according to city and borough statistics. Rates of crime, accidents and worker absenteeism plunged in the city of 4,200, while residents' participation in wholesome community activities skyrocketed.

''People are working. Kids are happier.... The older people in the community are so much happier because they're not spending their time being scared to death out of their own homes because of family abuse,'' Molly Pederson, a borough assembly member and native sobriety leader, said shortly before the election. ''It's hard for me to understand why anyone would want to go back to the old way.''

Liquid intruder

To sobriety leaders, the fight in part was a defense of communal Inupiat values against a liquid intruder that has brought legendary woes to native Americans.

''Speaking for myself personally, I care about the health of my community, the health of my family,'' Pederson said. ''We see it as a whole community, as a whole family, rather than just me for myself.''

But to Tom Nicolos, a maintenance supervisor at a local airline, any claimed benefits of the ban - which he disputes - did not justify the sacrifice of individual rights.

''It has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol for me,'' he said. ''Anytime we give up any freedoms whatsoever, I'm against that.''

Prohibition, he said, punishes ''responsible drinkers'' while doing nothing specifically to cure the small percentage of abusers.

The transplanted Californian and 14-year Barrow resident has fought the ban since it was imposed. He organized the Barrow Freedom Committee, the group that gathered the petition signatures to put the issue to a vote, and was himself elected to the city council last week.

Nicolos said he came to Barrow for its sense of freedom, ''the lack of government control, that people were allowed to have their own lives.'' And he resented the pro-ban push by the Inupiat establishment, especially the borough government, which provides a majority of Barrow's jobs. ''They say, 'We welcome white people in the community as long as they live the way we tell them to,'' he said.

Meanwhile, sobriety advocates in Bethel, in southwestern Alaska, failed in their effort to make that Yupik Eskimo village dry. By a 832 to 626 vote last week, the village will remain damp.

And residents of Kaktovik, a small Inupiat village east of Barrow, are circulating petitions to legalize alcohol use there.

The Barrow debate was not a simple division between the city's Inupiat and non-native, a segment that has grown to comprise 40 percent of the population since development of the North Slope oil fields. Many Inupiat supported an end to the dry status. Some argued the ban was based on the patronizing premise that natives are incapable of moderation. Others said it encouraged bootlegging and use of alternate intoxicants.

New Mayor too

And many non-Inupiat supported the ban, including Barrow's first elected non-native mayor, Jim Vonderstrasse, who handily unseated the incumbent, a recovering alcoholic and high-profile champion of the ban.

Vonderstrasse, a contractor and 22-year Barrow resident, said he will promote education and new recreation alternatives to try to heal the town's rift.

''Some people on the Freedom Committee don't drink, or drink very little. On the other side, it's totally incomprehensible to the sobriety movement to have somebody say, 'I want to take a drink,' w:hen their friends and family members have died,'' he said.

''I think if they just met each other and they got to talk to each other, they would realize that people on both sides have valid concerns.''

Debates over alcohol policy are nothing new to Vonderstrasse. When he was on the city council in the mid-1980s, during Barrow's ''damp'' period, he suggested a hefty alcohol import tax. ''Basically, the city of Barrow and the North Slope Borough get nothing from alcohol sales except trouble,'' he explained. Local protests killed his tax idea.

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