Columns 2009

Wet, dry, damp – the Bush dilemma

Are you like me? Do you feel that trying to follow the booze wars in Bush Alaska is like trying to watch Australian Rules football – it looks like something you should be able to understand; yet you can’t quite figure out what the heck is happening. And just in case you weren’t confused before, you have the spectacle in Bethel of the same group who pushed a vote for going wet now opposing anyone actually getting a liquor license.

Villages can vote to have their communities exist in one of three states:  Wet, which means anything goes from liquor stores to bars; Damp which means you can possess and drink liquor in the community but not buy or sell it there; Dry, which means no liquor, no how, no time, no where.  The fact that decades after these options were put in place there is not a village in Bush Alaska that doesn’t have significant drinking problems says a lot about the intractability of addiction.

I lived in Barrow for 27 years. During that time I watched the village go from wet to dry to damp with sometimes dizzying frequency. In the early ‘70s, the city opened its own liquor store figuring if people were going to drink anyway, you should keep the profits local. I still have an old newspaper from those years showing then City Mayor Jake Adams and Borough Mayor Eben Hopson Sr. cutting the ribbon on the city liquor store with Oliver Leavitt as the honorary first customer.

Things change, life happens and twenty years later, Jake was president of ASRC and firmly behind the sobriety movement that tried to take Barrow dry and led to the 1990s booze wars in Barrow.

That’s the thing about booze in the bush. It’s a topic of great controversy and great contradiction. When you start trying to use state laws to regulate it, you run smack up against a strange coalition of people who want to be able to drink freely but don’t want their community mad at them for promoting alcohol and people who want government to stay the hell out of their lives. Since you cast your ballot in secret, the former group becomes silent allies of the latter and you end up with a wet community and a group of people who wanted to make a statement but don’t really want to live with the consequences – ergo, the situation in Bethel.

Soon you will have a counter petition being circulated to put this issue back on the ballot to reverse the vote. Arguments will be made that despite years of these laws the alcohol problem remains, so prohibition is not the answer. This argument is countered by those claiming the laws at least lessen the severity of the problem. Both sides have statistics and anecdotes to back up their claims.

Alcohol’s destructive power is most especially felt in small communities where everyone needs to depend one everyone else to do their share to make life bearable. Prohibition, an idea that has failed miserably every time it’s been tried, is still one of the only hopes some villages see for controlling the problem. For village leaders frustrated by the intractability of this problem, and families being destroyed by alcohol, any thing that gives even the illusion of control is welcomed.

So expect the booze wars and the booze problems to continue in the Bush until we actually come up with a solution that works. So far, these laws don’t seem to be the answer. But if they even slow the problem down a slight bit, there are a lot of people who feel they are worth any perceived impingement on someone’s civil rights. And there are a lot of people who feel they are being punished for someone else’s problem by having the government pushed way too far into their personal lives.

I sympathize with the people who struggle to make their communities safe. But then, I also sympathize with those who think a glass of wine is not a sin.  The people I have little sympathy for are those who allow their addictions to destroy their families, communities and cultures.

I used to have sympathy for them. Now, I just want them to stop. Help is available. Take it.