Now that the Oglala Sioux have taken the historic step of legalizing alcohol on the Pine Ridge reservation, there's a lot of hard work ahead to make sure it is done right.
The goal of the change -- to provide revenue for alcohol treatment -- is well-intentioned.
The need is massive. About one of four babies on the reservation is born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Alcohol plays a role in everything from fatal accidents to murders. Activists have estimated that 85 percent of families on the reservation are affected by alcoholism.
Under the draft proposal put before voters, only the tribe would be allowed to sell alcohol.
The proceeds would be used for four specified purposes: 25 percent of the revenue would be used for two full-service detoxification facilities; 25 percent would be used for treatment, counseling and related services; 25 percent would be used for programs and projects to benefit Oglala youth; and 25 percent would be shared among nine district governments on the reservation.
The tribe intends to create an Alcohol Beverage Department, supervised by an appointed nine-member commission. Among its powers is setting the price for beer and other alcohol products.
Officials cautioned that the proposal is not final and that details could be revised.
Some tribal officials estimated before the vote that stores could generate as much as $10 million per year, based on sales in towns near the reservation. The figure is controversial, however. Critics say the figure is a gross overestimate. Assuming a markup of 33 percent on the nearly 4 million cans of beer sold in nearby Whiteclay would generate about $1 million per year, based on usual retail prices.
Another important benefit of the policy change is that tribal police now can reorder their priorities. Currently, officers spend most of their time enforcing the zero-tolerance law. Now they can concentrate on more serious crimes.
Except for a brief two-month stretch in the 1970s, the Pine Ridge reservation has been dry since it was established in 1889.
The narrowness of the vote -- the margin was only 192 votes, according to the tally after challenged votes were reviewed -- draws attention to the need for some of those opposed to the change to nonetheless give their best effort to see it implemented effectively.
One of those officials is Bryan Brewer, tribal president, an outspoken opponent of legalization who said profits from alcohol sales would be “blood money.”
Nonetheless, Brewer said before the vote that if the outcome was legalizing alcohol, “I’m going to make sure the money goes to fight alcohol abuse," Brewer said. We hope that Brewer and the tribe succeed.