Bethel alcohol sales spill over into nearby villages

Kuskokwim villages say they’re feeling the effects of Bethel’s new liquor store. The shop opened last week in the Kuskokwim’s hub after decades of banned sales.

Alcohol stock image courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images
Bethel recently made alcohol sales legal after nearly 40 years of prohibition. (Creative commons photo courtesy of Scott Olson – Getty Images)

In Akiak, Tribal Police Officer Cynthia Ivan has been keeping a call log to compare how alcohol sales in Bethel have increased the amount of emergency calls in her village.

“Assault four domestic violence, I got four of those, suicide threats, public intoxication, and intoxicated children,” Ivan said.

Ivan has been keeping the log for weeks and says the number of calls she received this week has been “insane.”

She says keeping alcohol out has shifted from difficult to impossible. And bootlegging has spiked among people who didn’t do it before.

“And only because the liquor store was open, and it was right there in front of her. It was available. It’s cheap. She bought it; she brought it back to the village; and she sold it,” Ivan said about a woman she recently caught reselling large amounts of alcohol purchased Bethel.

In Napaskiak, a 20-minute boat ride downriver from Bethel, the people are also feeling the impacts of Bethel’s legal alcohol sales.

“It’s been a very rough week since the liquor store opened,” said Brenda Carmichael, Napaskiak Mayor, who says she’s seeing an unusually high amount of inebriated people in the street this week.

Napaskiak is a dry village, like most of the villages immediately surrounding Bethel. But Carmichael says now that Bethel has a liquor store, so does Napasiak.

Carmichael’s main concern is that her city’s small police force won’t be able to handle the crime caused by increased intoxication.

“I’d be surprised if they lasted any longer,” Carmichael said.

Pete Suskuk, Kwethluk Tribal Police Chief, shares this concern.

“We usually have jail guards, and right now we don’t have any jail guards because of budget cuts,” Suskuk said. He says that the department was managing before alcohol sales started but now it’s having trouble.

“Now the officer is going to have sit here all night long until someone is able to come in and relieve him or her and will have to stay in the building. We can’t leave the building, even though we got another call,” Suskuk said.

This means that if they get a domestic violence call or hear of gunshots being fired their lack of staff will leave it unanswered.

All of these officials say they’ve failed to prevent the booze coming into their communities. As for how to fix the problem, none of them has been able to come up with a plan to keep their dry towns from getting soaked.

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