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Study links safety in Alaskan villages to liquor bans


March 22, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Remote Alaska villages that ban alcohol are significantly safer than those that don't, with fewer serious assaults resulting in death or hospitalization, according to a new study. Those same villages are even safer when they have law enforcement officers, said co-author Darryl Wood, of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center.

The study, which examined death certificates and state trauma records for 132 off-road villages between 1991 and 2000, comes as cash-starved communities fight to keep local safety officers and grapple with questions over alcohol policy.




The dry-versus-wet debate has long nagged rural villages, but some residents say local law enforcement is more important than whether a community is legally wet or dry.

Key among the report's findings:

- Dry villages had 52 percent fewer serious assaults than damp or wet villages.

- Dry villages with a police presence had 36 percent fewer serious assaults than dry villages without a police presence.

Alcohol has a long and troubled history in rural Alaska. It has been linked to the large number of village suicides, domestic violence, homicides and accidents - among the highest in the nation.

To stem the tide of liquor to decrease alcohol-related deaths and injuries, about 80 villages have capitalized on state laws passed in the 1980s allowing prohibition through local elections.

But villages often waver. Residents in Togiak and Nulato, for example, are considering rolling back local prohibition and permitting alcohol sales.

A citizens' effort to take Angoon from dry to damp recently failed by a close margin.

Studies on American Indian reservations in the Lower 48 add to the uncertainty. They've shown that suicides, homicides and motor-vehicle collisions are higher on reservations that ban alcohol.

There's a reason for that, Wood said. People on reservations have a relatively available supply of alcohol from highway bootleggers. And when they get a shipment, they binge-drink.

But prohibition is effective in Alaska's rural communities, Wood said. In part, that's because alcohol is harder to get - it must be smuggled in by plane or boat.

Also, residents in tight-knit communities take on bigger watchdog roles, said co-author Paul Gruenewald, with the California-based Prevention Research Center. The center studies alcohol and drug misuse around the nation with a focus on prevention.

Still, many Alaska communities remain skeptical, and only a handful of new villages have gone dry after the big rush of the 1980s and 1990s, said Doug Griffin, director of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

The beverage control board agrees that going dry doesn't end a community's alcohol problems, Griffin said. People who want a drink will find a way to get it.

Still, prohibition is a step in the right direction, he said. Communities that ban alcohol have tough punishments for bootleggers and are generally safer and healthier, he said.

Bethel's George Nicholai, who runs the village public safety officer program in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, said making alcohol possession against the law is almost meaningless with so few lawmen in the Alaskan Bush.

The VPSO program, the face of village law enforcement, has dwindled over the last 12 years as the state has scaled back money for the program. The number of officers has fallen from 100 in 1994 to 51 today.

The shortage is especially acute in Western Alaska. For example, there are 56 villages scattered across the delta, but the state pays for only 20 officers there, said Nicholai, who works for the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents.

Worse, because of low wages, only 14 villages have filled their VPSO slots, Nicholai said. As a result, bootleggers in the delta easily slip through the chasms in the law enforcement net, he said.

The state is trying to improve the program and recently gave new recruits a raise. They now make $16.55 an hour. Regional Native nonprofit corporations which administer the program can also chip in $2.50 an hour to increase the pay to $19.05 an hour.

The state's median wage in 2004 was about $20 an hour, usually for less demanding work.

The shortages are not just in Western Alaska. Only about 75 of the state's 180 or so off-road villages have a local police department, a public safety officer or a troopers post, Wood said.


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