When we think about the continental United States, it’s pretty easy to forget about Alaska. In most of our minds, it’s a distant land tucked away near Canada. However, most of us forget to realize that Alaska accounts for 17.5% of America’s land mass! It’s twice as big as Texas! It’s also the least densely populated state in the country, but still about three-quarters of a million people call it home. Alaska has a diverse culture and actually has twenty official state languages! Another thing most people don’t know about Alaska is that it has a statewide drug and alcohol problem. In fact, it consistently makes annual top ten lists of states with the most illicit drug use per capita. It’s not just alcohol either, although it is Alaska’s number one drug of choice. Alcohol, marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, prescription drugs and cocaine are the most widely abused substances in Alaska. In 2013, approximately 13.3% of state residents reported having abused one of these substances in the last month. Making matters worse, substance abuse drives the crime rate up in other areas. Before we discuss how Alaska’s drug problem is turning into a widespread crime problem, let us show you just how bad things are. We will begin with alcohol – the state’s curse, really – and then move on to illicit drugs. Then we will talk about how it’s driving crime up, and we will conclude with what’s being done to stop and prevent this vicious cycle. You’ll be surprised to learn that the Last Frontier has been invaded as well in this treacherous national substance abuse epidemic. You’ll also be pleased with how hard Alaskan law enforcement is working to return the giant state to peace.
Alcohol is a Killer
One of the most astounding facts about Alaska is a sad one. The rate of alcohol-caused deaths is three times higher than the rate for the rest of the United States. From 2001 to 2009 there were only two years when less than 20 per 100,000 residents died an alcohol-caused death, which include “…degeneration of the nervous system due to alcohol, alcoholic liver disease, gastritis, myopathy, pancreatitis, poisoning, and more,” according to the state’s website linked above. Not included in these statistics are “accidents, homicides, and other causes indirectly related to alcohol use.” This means there are even more Alaskan deaths from alcohol than depicted in the sad table above. It wasn’t until 1953, twenty years after prohibition in America ended, that Alaska Natives could purchase alcohol. Twenty-six years later, in 1979, the state revised its alcohol laws and allowed individual communities to either allow or prohibit alcohol sales. A total of 109 communities voted to outlaw it, and all hell broke loose, as you will see later on. Now, just over thirty-five years later, the state is out of control… and it’s not just alcohol.
Illicit Drugs in Alaska
According to the 2015 Annual Drug Report, issued by the Alaska State Troopers’ Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit, or SDEU, from 2013 to 2015, authorities seized over a metric ton of illicit drugs. This includes cocaine, heroin, marijuana, meth, and prescription pills. An astonishing amount of arrests were made as well. The SDEU serves as Alaska’s frontlines in the war on drug abuse. For a peek into their work, check out the table below.
|lbs. seized||52.5||84.2||584.7||76.4||10,358 pills|
Analysis of this data tells a sad story indeed. The most obvious statistic is the 593 heroin arrests – a huge number considering Alaska’s relatively low population. According to the drug report, “Heroin use is not isolated to the urban areas of Alaska. Undercover buys and interdictions of heroin have been reported in several smaller communities.” The same goes for cocaine, except on an even bigger scale. Although over 500 more arrests were made for heroin, abuse of cocaine is second to alcohol as the most widely abused substance in Alaska. The drug report called it “widely used” and “lucrative,” adding that the drug is “available in most areas of the state…” Meth is also a large problem in Alaska, with eight meth labs having been seized between ’13 and ’15. The major problem with meth labs in Alaska is their residential set-up. From the report: “Methamphetamine labs have been discovered in recent years in single and multi-family residences in many neighborhoods. In addition to meth labs producing illegal—and often deadly—drugs, the clandestine nature of the manufacturing process and the presence of ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic chemicals at the sites, have resulted in explosions, fires, toxic fumes, and irreparable damage to human health and to the environment.” Marijuana abuse is widespread in Alaska, with about 1/5 high school students smoking it regularly, but the SDEU has said it “…does not place an emphasis” on marijuana, unless public complaints lead to investigation. Lastly we have prescription pills, over 10,000 of which were seized in the 3-year period. The SDEU called pill abuse a “significant problem” in Alaska. Part of why they are so popular is due to the fact each milligram can be as cheap as one dollar. This makes opioid pills even cheaper than heroin. Alcoholism is rampant in Alaska, and the abuse of several illicit drugs is not far behind. However, as devastating as addiction is, and as many lives as it claims, in Alaska, the crimes committed in the name of addiction are causing their own epidemic.
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Crimes Due to Substance Abuse
“Members of Alaska’s law enforcement community and others who are part of Alaska’s criminal justice system have long known that the greatest contributing factor to violent crimes—including domestic violence and sexual assault—is drug and alcohol abuse. Property crimes, such as burglary and theft, often have a drug and alcohol abuse nexus. It is also widely recognized that many of the accidental deaths that occur in Alaska are related to alcohol use.” The single most disturbing statistic of Alaska has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. According to the Alaska Victimization Survey of 2015, one half of women in the state have experienced “intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both.” To have a 50% domestic violence rate is absolutely terrible – and it’s gone down since 2010!!! Making matters worse, alcohol is involved in over two-thirds of these attacks. Unfortunately, it’s not just the crime rate of domestic violence that’s driven up by alcohol abuse. Believe it or not, Alaska has a serious problem with bootlegging. Remember that over a hundred communities have banned alcohol. Well, that doesn’t mean members of those communities don’t drink – and they will pay out the nose for it. A $10 bottle of alcohol can sell for up to $300 in some more remote Alaskan dry communities. How do the bootleggers get it there? Regular mail, local airlines, private pilots, boats, and even snowmobiles have all been used.
It Gets Worse
Domestic violence aside, which is a major issue in Alaska, crimes related to drugs get much worse. Personal and business burglary, assault, and even murder are among the crimes committed because of substance abuse. Crime rates are soaring, and although Alaska law enforcement is doing all it can, there may not be enough members. For example, there is only 1 cop for every 2,100 residents in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a portion of Alaska that’s about as big as West Virginia. Plus, with Alaska’s widespread rural landscape, it’s more difficult for troopers to patrol than in most of the other states. Believe it or not, prescription pills are actually associated with the most crime. This is because on top of the theft and assault in order to attain more, people break the law in order to get them legally. For example, doctor shopping, prescription fraud, forgery, dark web purchase, and even robbing pharmacies are all problems in Alaska. Who knew the Last Frontier was among the first in drug use and crime? Those fighting it know all too well.
What’s Being Done
As stated by the SDEU itself, there are “numerous municipal, borough, state and federal agencies that conduct drug and alcohol investigations in Alaska.” As a matter of fact, take a look at the picture below to get a better idea of how difficult policing the state is. WAANT stands for Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team, and SEACAD stands for Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs Task Force, two of the six teams that make up the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit. In addition to this monumental teamwork, SDEU works closely with the following agencies to police Alaska’s substance abuse problem:
- US Postal Inspection Service
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
- Homeland Security
- US Coast Guard
- All local police stations & agencies
That’s a lot of policing. However, on a different note, Alaska offers something extremely beneficial and relatively innovative. Through their Department of Health and Social Services, the state offers a school for smalltime drug offenders that reduces sentences, yes, but does much more in the process.
Alcohol & Drug Information School (and Prime for Life)
Not necessarily the first of its kind, but absolutely innovative, Alaska offers ADIS, or Alcohol & Drug Information School, to “all Alaskans involved in alcohol and/or other drug related offenses…,” with very few restrictions. The participant must not be a diagnosed addict, and the crime committed cannot have been violent. The goal is not only to reduce the sentence, but to reduce the desire to abuse drugs or alcohol. The school offers many different programs, each designed specifically for different needs but using a core curriculum of “…the most recent research in early intervention and prevention.” However, each ADIS program also caters specifically to each region of Alaska, realizing the diversity of the state. For an overview of how a program would work, check out one of last year’s flyers seeking ADIS instructors. Prime for Life is a similar program, except it’s available to all. Prime for Life has already proven itself by showing that participants have increased abstinence, less substance abuse overall, and reduced recidivism for those in trouble with the law. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recognizes it as an evidence-based program of success.
It seems the wild wild west moved northeast. While California, Oregon and Washington each have their own horrible substance abuse problems, up and to the left, in Alaska, is a truly chaotic scene. Drugs are being transported all over the state, and a limited number of extremely dedicated troopers are there to stop it. It’s not exactly clear what’s preventing not just addicted Alaskans but all addicted Americans from getting the help they need. However, the SDEU knows it’s going to take more than law enforcement. Part of the unit’s mission statement says it all, calling enforcement “simply one prong of what must be a coordinated, multi-pronged approach to health, wellness, education and accountability.”