Many indigenous people have occupied Alaska for thousands of years, long before the arrival of European groups. DNA studies show that the Tlingit people developed a society with a system of property inheritance in what is Southeast Alaska today. These groups include the Haida, known for unique art and the Tsimshian, who came from British Columbia in 1887. All three groups of these people, along with the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, suffered devastating health epidemics in the mid-1800s. Today, many descendants from these groups, and their families, still reside in Alaska.
A survey of residents of Alaska for “Healthy Alaskans 2020” found that alcohol use and abuse, along with other substance use/abuse, was the two top health issues facing the state. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, high school students in Alaska used alcohol and prescription drugs more than many other states.
While drug and alcohol use is a problem in this state, there are not as many substance abuse treatment facilities as in more populated states. However, the goal of these substance abuse and mental health services centers is to provide the patient access to treatment and full recovery from addiction. Going inpatient for an extended time gives the patient more chance of maintaining long-term sobriety than outpatient care.
Anchorage is the main city in Alaska, with a population of 292,000. Called the Municipality of Anchorage, this city contains around 42% of the state’s total population. This city lies 9 ½ hours by air from the industrialized world. For this reason, the Anchorage International Airport is a common stop for refueling of many international flights and FedEx calls Anchorage a critical part of its global services network.
Drug dependence and alcohol addiction in Anchorage, Alaska is a major issue for the residents and even tourists passing through. In 2011, 4,420 people were arrested for driving under the influence (DUI), and 60% of all violent crimes here involved alcohol or drugs. Based on a report by the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, heavy drinking is a problem in Alaska, especially Anchorage. Alcohol addiction has many consequences, with 1 in 10 Native Alaska resident deaths being linked to alcohol. Of all hospitalizations related to injury, the Alaska Trauma Registry (ATR) found that 25% (one fourth) was proven alcohol-related injuries.
The largest city in the inner region of Alaska, Fairbanks has a population of around 32,470, with the Fairbanks North Star Borough home to around 99,000 people. This city is located around 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Fairbanks is America’s coldest city, with average winter lows ranging from −15 to −25 °F (−26 to −32 °C), but extremes can range from −50 to −70 °F. Fairbanks and other cities in Alaska, are seeing an increase in the number of drug overdose deaths which have doubled since 1999. The Prescription Drug Abuse Report by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) found that the death rate related to drugs was 12 per 100,000 persons. In addition, rx pill abuse is a major public health concern in Alaska, with misuse of prescription painkillers being a problem along with heroin.
The City and Borough of Juneau is the capital of Alaska. It is located on the Gastineau Channel in the panhandle, and is the second largest city in the U.S. regarding area (population is only 32,400). However, 100,000 residents live in the metropolitan area, close to the city of Juneau. The city is named after Joe Juneau, a gold prospector. There are around 12 local drug rehab and alcohol treatment centers in Juneau. According to statistics from the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, commonly abused substances in Juneau are marijuana, pain killers and muscle relaxers (vicodin, oxycodone, percocet), cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin. Of course, alcohol is the most abused substance here, as with all of Alaska. In 2013 alone, many shipments of heroin and methamphetamines entered Juneau with Drug Enforcement Administration officials charging 41 people with crimes related to these drugs.
Formerly New Archangel under Russian rule, Sitka is a city-borough located on Baranof Island. It is home to around 9,000 people, and Sitka means “People on the Outside of Baranof Island.” Originally settled by the Tlingit people 10,000 years ago, warriors destroyed the original Russian settlement, killing many people. Russians eventually defeated the Tlingit people, but they deserted the area after the battle. The two largest employers in the city are the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and the Sitka School District, however fishing and seafood harvesting is a major component of Sitka’s economy. According to information from the DEA’s 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment regarding Alaska, Sitka and the Pacific Region has a high rate of methamphetamine use. The drug comes in via boats and the Southwest border. In addition, cocaine is a growing trend and problem in this city. Finally, The Alaska State Troopers report that marijuana (weed) is the most widely available and abused drug in this region of Alaska.
Ketchikan is the Southeastern-most city in Alaska, with around 14,000 people. Incorporated in 1900, Ketchikan, and the surrounding borough, encompasses both suburbs and city residents along the Tongass Highway. Located on Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan was named by Captain Vancouver in 1793 after Ketchikan Creek, which flows through the main town region. This region of Alaska served as a summer fish camp for the Tlingit people for many years before it was established in 1885. Commercial fishing, tourism, and government services are the mainstays of Ketchikan’s economy. According to the Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement, the Southeast Alaska Narcotics Enforcement Team is responsible for monitoring Ketchikan. These officials have found that alcoholism is a major problem in this city, with methamphetamine being widely available as well. Meth comes into Ketchikan in powder form (broken down) and being made in other locations as far away as Mexico.
A city in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Wasilla, is located on the northern point of Cook Inlet, which is in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Wasilla is a Southern-central city, with around 8,600 people. Established at the intersection of Old Carle Wagon Road and the Alaska Railroad, Wasilla originally prospered as a mining town. It gained international attention when Sarah Palin was chosen to run with John McCain as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Named after Chief Wasilla, a Russian-given name to a Native Alaskan leader, this city has its share of drug and alcohol-related problems. According to a report from the Alaska State Troopers, drinking and drug abuse/use is the greatest contributing factor to domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes in Wasilla, Alaska. In addition, property crimes (theft and burglary) are related to substance abuse, as are accidental deaths. AK ranked as one of the top ten states for illicit drug use, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Around 13% of residents in this state admitted to using an illicit drug within the past month.
With a population of around 8,000, Kenai is the city of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Kenai is named after the word Tanaina, meaning “flat, meadow, open area with few trees.” Russian fur traders first arrived in this area in 1741, and at the time, around 1,000 native people resided in the village. The Russians and natives battled for territory, with over 100 deaths from all involved parties. Fishing is the main source of economy in this coastal city, with the largest King Salmon being caught here (weighed at 97 pounds). The Kenai River empties into the Cook Inlet, which is in the city limits. Fishery has led to a strain on city resources, as they must deal with fish waste, litter, and fire hazards associated with this industry.
In response to the heroin epidemic in communities like Kenai, the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and Alaska Department of Health and Social Services formed the Alaska Opioid Policy Task Force (AOPTF), which is working on strategies and policies to address the rising incidence of heroin usage. Because of the ongoing alcohol and drug problem in and near Kenai, there are currently at least 9 rehabilitation centers which treat patients for a variety of addictions they are suffering from.
Population 6,300, Kodiak is one of seven communities of the Kodiak Island Borough. All transportation between the outside world and the entire island passes through happens either by air or ferry boat. Over 7,000 years ago, the area was inhabited by Alutiiq natives. In the 18th century, Russians settled here, harvesting sea otter pelts, which led to the near extinction of the species. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Kodiak became the commercial fishing center and today this is the mainstay of the area’s economy. The city has four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. In addition, there is a small branch of the University of Alaska here.
There is a need for more Alaska addiction treatment centers, particularly near Kodiak. Alaska towns and small cities have seen a rise in crime, violence, and poverty, which is attributed to drugs and alcohol (wine, beer or liquor) use and abuse. According to statistics, 39,000 people in Alaska have an alcohol dependence issue, and another 18,000 are addicted to an illicit drug such as cocaine, methamphetamine (ice), heroin, crack or pills. Because substance treatment is necessary for long-term recovery, some of these residents may not be able to get the help they need due to limited resources.