BETHEL, Alaska—In March of this year, state troopers stopped a 59-year-old man who was headed for the tiny village of Chevak. His suitcase was leaking alcohol, so an airline employee called over state trooper Jerry Evan. The man allowed Evan to search the suitcase, which reeked of booze, and in it Evan found more than 10 liters of alcohol. He arrested the man and charged him with a felony.

In most of the country, a suitcase leaking liquor would be an annoyance, not a crime. But this is rural Alaska, which has had a complicated relationship with alcohol for much of the past 50 years. Violent crime is high here, much of it fueled by booze. Many Native Alaskan villages in the region have gone dry, but that doesn’t stop bootleggers from trying to bring in bottles of liquor, which may cost just $11 in Anchorage but can sell for hundreds in the Alaskan bush.

Now, Bethel, the regional hub for 56 villages in western Alaska, is reconsidering its relationship with booze. It’s currently illegal to buy or sell alcohol in Bethel, though residents are allowed to import it from elsewhere. And many villages, including Chevak, have banned the sale and importation of alcohol. But some residents say that the prohibition on liquor sales has only made things worse.

This spring in Bethel, a local supermarket applied for a package liquor-store license, and to the surprise of just about everyone, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board said it would allow it. Previously, the city council had protested each liquor-store license application, and the board had listened, and denied every request. This time, it didn’t.

In early October, the town will hold an advisory vote on the issue, allowing citizens to weigh in on whether they want liquor sold in town. Local leaders are hoping a resounding “No” vote will convince the ABC Board to reconsider its decision.

“I consider it a net positive that there are no liquor stores or bars in Bethel,” said Mark Springer, a city councilman whose son drowned in 2011 as a result of alcohol abuse. “I haven’t had many people say to me, ‘You’re on the city council, you should get a liquor store in Bethel.’”

Bethel is a regional hub in Alaska (Google Maps)

Yet others, most notably, the Bethel Native Corporation, which owns the subsidiary that applied for the liquor license, argue that it’s time for Bethel and the Delta to modernize its relationship with alcohol. Perhaps there are so many alcohol-related problems because people don’t have access to booze, and so binge when they get their hands on it, they say.

“It is time for the community to mature and no longer be crippled by paternalistic mentalities,” Ana Hoffman, the president of the Bethel Native Corporation, said at a city meeting about alcohol sales earlier this year. “We can handle a liquor store in Bethel and the area villages can handle it too.”

It’s true that Prohibition didn’t work in America, and that many cities and towns across the country that have gone dry have actually experienced an uptick in alcohol-related accidents. But there may be something different at work in rural Alaska, where villages that have tried selling alcohol have then recanted after a dramatic increase in deaths. Though making alcohol easier to access may decrease its allure, the dilemma of Bethel raises the question: Is it really a good idea to sell alcohol in a region where nearly all of the crimes, most of the health crises, and many of the deaths are related to drinking?

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Europeans have had access to alcohol for thousands of years. But Native Alaskans have only had access to booze for a few hundred. Even when European settlers brought alcohol to Alaska, local laws prohibited them from selling it to Native Alaskans.

When tribal laws banning the consumption of alcohol were nullified with statehood in 1959, though, alcohol began flowing into the cities, states, and bush communities with alarming speed.

Alcohol turned much of Alaska into a modern-day version of the Wild West. In Bethel in 1972, for instance, a local police chief was killed in a shootout after a man who had been drinking heavily threatened a cab driver with a shotgun and then turned his gun on the police officer, who had come to help.

By the 1980s, suicide and homicide rates in Alaska were five times the national average, due mainly to alcohol. Part of the problem was the rate of binge drinking among Alaska Natives, said Darryl S. Wood, a professor at Washington State University Vancouver, who has studied the effects of alcohol on Native Arctic villages. Alaska Natives drank less frequently than other Americans, but when they did, they’d consume huge amounts of alcohol.

“These are cultures where people have gone from the Stone Age to the Space Age. Literally, people were living in stone huts and then NASA was visiting them to scope out a runway,” Wood told me. “It’s the same thing with drinking, they don’t have the same culture of drinking that European people have. And even European people don’t do a very good job of handling alcohol.”

A police officer tries to rouse a man in Nome, where alcohol sales are allowed. (Al Grillo / AP)

In the 1980s, the state of Alaska began to allow local villages some control over alcohol sales. The local-option law, as it’s called, allows villages to prohibit the sale and importation of alcohol locally. Villages can also make it illegal to possess alcohol within their borders.

Currently, under local-option laws, 21 towns in Alaska ban the sale of alcohol, 42 ban the sale and importation of alcohol, and 33 ban the sale, importation, and possession of alcohol, according to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

A six-pack of nonalcoholic beer sells for $16 in
Bethel. (Alana Semuels)

Becoming dry has proven an effective way to reduce crimes related to alcohol, although only by a little, said Wood, who has studied the effects of alcohol bans on crime. Dry villages had lower rates of serious injury caused by assault than those that allowed alcohol, Wood and colleagues found, in one study of 132 isolated Alaska Native villages. In a separate paper studying communities in Nunavut, a remote territory in Canada, Wood found that sexual-assault rates, homicides rates, and serious-assault rates were all higher in wet communities than in dry ones.

“The villages are safer when they’re dry,” Wood told me.

This is markedly different than Native American villages in the lower 48, which sometimes see crimes worsen when alcohol is banned. When the Jicarilla Apache legalized alcohol, for instance, there was little change in drinking behavior or criminal arrests, he said. And in 1970, when the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota allowed package stores to sell alcohol for a brief window of time, arrests actually went down.

In the lower 48, Native American villages are connected to the outside world by roads, and alcohol is easy to obtain for anyone with a car or a bus pass. But the only way in and out of most Native Alaska villages is by airplane, or on the rivers by boat in the summer or snowmobile in the winter.

Alcohol is a hassle to transport in rural Alaska, he said. “There’s no roads, it’s flying it in and it’s difficult.”

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Of course, just because it’s difficult to bring alcohol to the villages doesn’t mean no one tries. Hundreds, if not thousands, of bootleggers buy alcohol in Anchorage or other big cities and bring it to Bethel and then into the villages. They hide it in their suitcases or tuck bottles into their boots or clothing. They hide booze in diapers or pour out water bottles and fill them with vodka. It’s not illegal to bring alcohol into Bethel, after all, and there’s no airport security going from Bethel to the villages. Travelers just walk out of the poky terminal onto the runway, where they climb onto a propeller plane that takes them away.

While I was in Bethel, I met with the three Alaska State troopers who are in charge of trying to prevent alcohol and drugs from entering villages. (That’s right, there are just three people in charge of policing a remote area the size of Oregon and searching for bootleggers.)

They sometimes catch people, as is evidenced by the arrest of the man with the leaky luggage. And the knowledge that they are out there, looking for bootleggers, may deter some people from smuggling. But they are governed by the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. Mostly, the three officers, Todd Moehring, Jerry Evan, and Angela Womack, operate off tips from villagers who hear about someone trying to bring alcohol into the village. They go to the airport and, if they can find the suspect, they can ask to search his luggage. If he assents, they search it. If not, they need to have enough proof to obtain a warrant. There is no stop and frisk here (this is conservative Alaska, after all).

“We can't do this ourselves. We rely on the community to help us out,” Moehring told me. “We’re not touching 1 percent of the stuff that comes in.”

The state troopers oversee a network of villages like Newtok, which is only accessible by water or air and has no local law enforcement (Alana Semuels)

The penalties for smuggling alcohol are also pretty small, he said. Often, the troopers will arrest someone and confiscate his booze, and then run into him the next day heading back to his village, bootlegging once again.

“It’s very profitable,” Moehring said, about smuggling. “And if the penalty is a maximum of a year in jail or a $10,000 fine, some folks just see it as part of doing business.”

Still, the troopers are occasionally successful.

It was, partly, their ability to monitor the alcohol coming in and out of town that motivated Bethel to vote to go wet in 2009. The city was, for decades, “damp” under local-option status, which meant the state kept close track of how much alcohol people brought to town and went after people who were importing more than the limit. Certain quantities of alcohol were allowed in, but no one could buy or sell it.

In January of 2009, the state of Alaska, under Governor Sarah Palin, proposed a new set of laws that would more closely monitor how much alcohol people brought into towns like Bethel. Residents were already sick of government intrusion in their private lives. They complained that the local-option laws made it difficult to buy booze for weddings, and that a new government database that tracked how much booze people in damp communities bought was a step too far. The state system was leading to teenagers getting felonies and people being prosecuted for having a few beers in their fridge, Bethel Vice Mayor Leif Albertson told me.

‘‘It was, ‘We don’t want alcohol but we don’t like your system of how we’re supposed to not have alcohol,’” he said.

The town voted to go wet to get the state out of their business.

“I was tired of being treated like a criminal. I felt like I was a criminal when we were under local option.” Council Member Heather Pike said, at a community meeting about the issue.

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On the ballot on October 6, Bethel residents will be asked whether the city should support a liquor license for a liquor store, a bar, a restaurant, or another business within city limits. City council members are hoping the answer will be no, so they can take that response to the ABC Board in their appeal, and ask them to deny a liquor license to the Bethel Native Corporation.

But the conclusion of the vote is anybody’s guess. The 2009 vote was close, with 615 residents voting to leave local option and 523 voting to stay in.

“It’s a no-brainer that at some point we’re going to have liquor sales at this town,” Frances Reichs, who has lived in town for 40 years and hosts a weekly radio call-in show, told me.

But many in Bethel say allowing a liquor store would be disastrous, and the majority of people who showed up at a hearing about the issue did so to speak out against alcohol sales. Already, the town is a haven for alcoholics—one resident told me that when he took his young son to a grocery store in Anchorage, the boy asked him why there weren’t drunk people hanging around, because he had become so used to the phenomenon. Listerine, Lysol, and other grocery store products with trace amounts of alcohol are kept behind a customer service counter in the supermarket in Bethel to prevent abuse.

A bar in Nome, one of the only Native Alaskan towns that allows alcohol sales. (Al Grillo / AP)

Since Bethel is a hub for dozens of villages, residents worry about the effect on their towns too. In that respect it seems strange that a vote that likely won’t get more than 1,000 people voting could have such a dramatic impact on such a huge region.

“If there's a liquor store, you might as well have the villages get booze too,” Jerome Williams, a 27-year-old resident of the village of St. Mary’s, told me. “They're going to come straight here and get the booze.”

Still, some Alaskan towns have introduced alcohol in ways that might be more effective than what Bethel is trying. They include the northern town of Kotzebue, also a regional hub, which decided to allow alcohol sales in 2011. Alcohol is Kotzebue is still closely regulated: The liquor store is owned and operated by the city, and the government operates a distribution center where it tracks and taxes all alcohol going to private homes. Residents and non-residents have to pay for a permit that allows them to buy alcohol, and if they get into trouble while drinking, the government will take that permit away. Now there is talk of opening a restaurant that serves beer and wine. The city has made millions from alcohol sales.

Kotzebue still has some problems with alcohol, and in reality, said Wood, it might just take some time for the alcohol problems to recede. In Greenland, for example, alcohol first became available to the Inuit in the 1950s. Consumption increased each decade after that, leading to violence, crimes, and debate over what to do.

“They were going through systems of rationing to open liquor stores to rationing to open liquor stores,” Wood said.

When open liquor stores became de rigeur about 25 years ago, consumption spiked, and breweries in Denmark had to stay open during the weekends to keep up with demand, Wood said. But the problems have attenuated, and “now, they’ve come to grips with being able to drink,” Wood said.

It might have helped that in many villages, liquor and hard alcohol was prohibited, but wine and beer sales were allowed. Having just beer and wine available allowed people to learn how to drink, experts say.

It may sound paternalistic, but that approach could work in Alaska, Wood said.

But he’s skeptical that much will change in Alaska villages whether or not there’s alcohol access. Many of the villages are depressing places, with no jobs or industry and no infrastructure. That’s why even dry villages, which are safer than wet ones, are still more violent places than the rest of Alaska, he said. There’s nothing to do in the villages, and no way out, so of course people drink and get into trouble.

“If you have to poop in a bucket, how good would your life be?” he said, referring to “honey-buckets,” the pots where most rural Alaskans dispose of their waste. “As long as the focus is only going to be on alcohol, you’re not going to see big changes in these communities.”