NB: Ban on single-can beer sales could help Whiteclay’s alcohol problem, some officials say-
By Paul Hammel, World-Herald staff writer
October 4, 2015
WHITECLAY, Neb. — Street people sipping malt liquor from cans wrapped in brown paper bags.
A man urinating on the side of a fence.
Three people lying in the dust, passed out, along Nebraska Highway 87.
You can see that and more on a drive through this litter-strewn hamlet on the South Dakota border.
It’s an unincorporated village of perhaps 15 residents whose four beer stores sell the equivalent of nearly 4 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just a few yards down the road.
As a result, Whiteclay is a magnet for street people, perhaps 20 to 30 of them, who panhandle for spare change to buy beer — the only product sold by the stores — to sustain an ugly drinking habit.
But some advocates say they see at least a partial solution: Ban the sale of single cans of beer, particularly the cheap, higher-alcohol, 24-ounce cans of Hurricane or Camo Black. They are the preferred product on the street, the cheapest high on the menu, costing less than $1.50 a can and delivering three times as much alcoholic punch as typical beer.
In August the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ordered a downtown Omaha convenience store to stop selling single cans of beer, or even two cans taped together, in an attempt to reduce problems associated with vagrants openly drinking along 16th Street.
Across the country, cities from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin, have ordered inner-city liquor outlets to cease sales of single cans of beer and other small, cheap portions of liquor and wine to combat littering, public urination and harassment of pedestrians.
Such bans decreased alcohol-related police calls and helped clean up neighborhoods, according to a 2009 study of inner-city Seattle by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
So why not Whiteclay?
Beer store owners in the village say such a ban probably wouldn’t make much impact. The street people are chronic alcoholics who will just find another way to buy or panhandle beer and get drunk, they say.
But the idea is finding some unlikely allies. Two officials who don’t agree on much — the local sheriff and an activist with Nebraskans for Peace — both say it’s time to consider such a ban. And the Sheridan County Board has scheduled a discussion of the idea at its Oct. 19 meeting.
“We’re interested in that possibility,” said James Krotz of Rushville, one of three County Board members. “We are concerned about public safety there on the streets of Whiteclay.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Mark Vasina of Nebraskans for Peace, who has traveled to Whiteclay regularly and produced a documentary film about the efforts to end alcohol sales there.
What to do about what some call “the skid row of the Plains” has perplexed generations of state and tribal officials.
Some activists have called for the closing of the stores, saying they’re the prime contributor to epidemic levels of alcoholism on the reservation and the affiliated ills.
But state liquor officials say they can’t close down lawful businesses without a good reason, and liquor law violations have been few and far between.
Pine Ridge tribal leaders, meanwhile, say they’re woefully short of law enforcement to enforce the alcohol ban on the sprawling reservation. A recent attempt to permit alcohol sales on the reservation — and bring new revenue to the tribe to combat its alcohol-related problems — has stalled, despite a vote by tribal members in 2013 to allow it.
There was a legal challenge to the vote, and the new tribal administration has not made the issue a priority.
So the woes in Whiteclay continue. Protest marches have been held, lawsuits have been filed, fingers have been pointed — yet little has changed.
A Washington state health official said bans on certain cheap alcohol products in “alcohol impact areas” in a handful of cities in that state have helped reduce the problems associated with street people and inebriation.
“It’s not a cure-all, but it is a tool that helps contribute to a better environment,” said Mary Segawa, a public health education liaison with Washington’s liquor board.
Sales of 34 brands of cheap and high-alcohol beer and wine were banned in two impact zones established in Seattle in 2006. A 2009 report on the impact of the ban found that rescue and police calls decreased for “person down” and “drinking in public.”
While agencies that provide services to indigents expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the alcohol impact zones, the report said that area residents noticed an improvement. There was no evidence that liquor retailers saw reduced sales, the report added.
In Omaha, opinions are mixed about the impact of the ban on the sales of single cans at the Downtown Food Mart near 16th and Harney Streets.
Omaha Police Capt. Katherine Belcastro said officers on the afternoon shift have noticed “visible improvement” in the area since the ban was ordered in August.
But Terri Enger, the manager of the Brandeis Building, which has 165 luxury condos and a food court, said she still sees street people congregating and drinking around the bus stops along 16th Street.
“The problem we have in this area is more than the ban could solve,” Enger said. “Every day there’s trash, broken beer bottles, panhandling. Sometimes the (street people) are not fully dressed or in a state of mind that they’re not totally coherent.”
Bob Batt of Omaha, the chairman of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, said the board tried to get an alcohol impact zone law passed in Nebraska.
Such a law, Batt said, would be the easiest way to ban certain cheap alcohol products in places such as Whiteclay or downtown Omaha. But the proposal never got out of a legislative committee when it was introduced in 2012.
Batt said the commission is legally restricted in what it can do. It was able to ban single sales in Omaha because it was a stipulation requested by the Omaha City Council, he said.
Both he and Hobert Rupe, the commission’s executive director, said that to avoid litigation, the Sheridan County Board, which oversees Whiteclay, would have to make a similar request.
“We’d love to work with them,” Batt said.
In the past, the liquor commission has worked to ban certain products it considered dangerous, including a caffeinated malt liquor product called Four Loko.
But Kathy Siefken, a representative of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, said banning sales of single cans in Whiteclay will just push the problem elsewhere and won’t resolve the bigger problem of alcoholism.
Two owners of beer outlets in Whiteclay questioned whether a ban on single-can sales would help.
“The human is a creative individual. They’ll find some way around it,” said Doug Sanford of D&S Pioneer Service.
Tom Poor Bear, the vice president of the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council, also questioned whether such a ban would deter people whose “pride has been broken.”
But Sheridan County Sheriff Homer Robbins, who has patrolled the streets of Whiteclay for 21 years, said the cheap, high-alcohol malt liquors are produced chiefly to sell to street people. A statewide ban would be a good idea, he said.