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Alaska Gold Rush town struggles with hard-drinking legacy
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The old Gold Rush town of Nome on Alaska’s western coast is trying again to address hard drinking that’s deeply entrenched there — this time with a proposed law prohibiting intoxication in public places like the city’s main street, where people can be seen stumbling along or passed out near tourist shops.

The measure would for the first time outlaw intoxication in public rights of way, such as Nome’s Front Street and its sea wall. It targets those with a blood-alcohol content of at least 0.08 percent — the same threshold for driving while intoxicated.

But it is getting a tepid response from some city council members and citizens while stirring debate on how to stem a problem that has seemed to worsen this summer.

City Manager Tom Moran was directed by the council to introduce the measure, and even he says it’s an attempt “to do something.”

Locals say such a law would unfairly target residents who are struggling with alcoholism while failing to address root causes. Critics also say the likely targets would include a few dozen constant street drinkers who can’t afford to pay fines, even though the final version of the measure doesn’t propose any penalties. An incorrect fine schedule in the original draft was removed.

The measure could be amended to include a fine if it passes, Moran said.

City Council member Mark Johnson opposes the proposal that’s set to be addressed Monday.

“I think everybody has good intentions for trying to assist with a problem that we have. But I think the methods to accomplish that are multifaceted,” he said.

Nome’s boozing history was born with the town after gold was discovered in 1898, bringing scores of hard-drinking fortune seekers. The gunslinger Wyatt Earp ran the most ornate of 50 saloons lining Front Street in the Gold Rush heyday.

Nearly 120 years later, there are 13 establishments that sell alcohol along the hardscrabble downtown business district. There are also three liquor stores along that four-block stretch.

Public intoxication problems always spike over a weeklong period in March, when the city is the finish point for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and in October, when nearly every Alaska resident receives a check from the state’s oil wealth fund.

Alaska Natives comprise a majority of the street drinkers, Moran said — but he adds that no one is saying the measure targets Alaska Natives. Natives make up more than 75 percent of Nome’s population of 3,800, according to the U.S. Census.

Heavy drinking involves only a fraction of the nation’s indigenous population but an ugly stereotype persists, experts said. Inadequate health care has been blamed for a disproportionately higher rate of alcohol-related deaths among them. Alcohol abuse among Natives also has been linked to such factors as loss of culture, poverty and possibly behaviors learned generations ago from hard-drinking nonnative settlers and traders.

Barb Amarok, who runs a local shelter for women and children, noted alcohol is a fairly new problem for Alaska Natives in a history stretching back thousands of years. “It’s been connected to 150 years — out of 14,000 years — of generational trauma caused by forced acculturation,” said Amarok, who is Inupiat.

She does not support the ordinance, saying it doesn’t address causes or solutions for the issue.

Jenny Mills, a member of the Regional Wellness Forum, said she counted at least 20 intoxicated people in less than one-tenth of a mile along Nome’s seawall on Labor Day. But she doesn’t support the ordinance, saying it does nothing to help a vulnerable population.

“We need to address the underlying causes and not pursue a punitive route because it’s not addressing the problem,” she said.

There is no single solution to deal with alcohol abuse seen throughout a state that has a disproportionately high rate of alcohol abuse, those in town say.

In Nome, locals advocate for various remedies that include additional rehabilitation services and an alcohol tax. They also have long sought an inpatient rehab center, but plans for one are at least two years away from development.

Police also have seen their options for immediate action dwindle. For example, 12-hour holds in protective custody were considered a valuable tool, but their use was severely limited after a state corrections department policy change a couple of years back.

“It’s not against the law to be intoxicated in public,” Nome police chief John Papasodora said. “And you can’t make a law to say that it’s against the law to be intoxicated in public.” That’s because, for the most part, state law says alcoholism is a disease and cannot be criminally penalized, Papasodora noted.

Mayor Richard Beneville is sympathetic to Nome’s hardcore drinkers, saying he is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober 28 years.

His heart goes out to those still struggling like he once did, he said.

“This is a thorny issue and like I said, I’ve been there myself,” Beneville said. “If I had a solution, I’d have a sign and I’d be walking out in front of City Hall picketing.”