ELKO — Becky Anthony has seen some busy nights in the Stray Dog Pub & Cafe. On crowded weekends, it can be difficult to move inside the small space on Fifth Street, with boisterous laughter thundering from tables of people celebrating the end of a long week. It’s common to see the crowd spill out onto the sidewalk tables in front.
“The best thing a bartender could do is not over-serve, but some bars here don’t care,” Anthony said. “Sometimes you don’t know how much they’ve had unless they’re falling all over the place.”
The weekend crowds that mill around the downtown corridor made up a big chunk of the more than 500 DUI arrests in Elko County last year. Elko’s DUI problem has a lot to do with the 24-hour nature of the town: its always-open bars, its readily available alcohol, its shift work culture and its never-sleeping casinos.
“Nevada is the land of free alcohol,” said Dalana Baxter, lead counselor at the Walker Center, an alcohol and drug treatment center in Twin Falls, Idaho. “There is no daytime or nighttime in a casino. Add some alcohol and adrenaline to that and it’s very much a cultural aspect.”
Alcohol isn’t hard to find in Elko, even outside of the casinos. In a study done by Partners Allied for Community Excellence Coalition looking at DUI arrests from 2008, 35 percent of DUI arrests were within a block of an alcohol selling outlet. Fifty-five percent were within two blocks and 76 percent within five blocks.
The consequences of such readily available alcohol are evident in the back seat of Elko Police Officer Michael Gustafson’s cruiser. Behind the shatterproof glass and bars is a set of gently curved hard plastic seats. They’re not fabric because officers so frequently have to rinse them of urine, excrement and vomit.
“It’s just part of patrolling in Elko,” Gustafson said. “We deal with a lot of drunks and with no gross intoxication laws, people get really, really drunk.”
Part of the problem is also the cultural reliance on community events where alcohol is available, said Vitality Center Program Coordinator Barbara Caskey. She counted down a long list of Elko activities that can revolve around alcohol: wine walks, pub crawls, biker rallies, hunting, fishing, camping and casino gambling.
“I don’t think the community or businesses realize that they promote inappropriate drinking and the lifestyle of drinking,” Caskey said. “When you have a community with the belief that you can drink to one’s heart’s content and it not affect you, that’s naive.”
The most concentrated times during the day for DUI arrests are between midnight and 4 a.m., and between 3 and 4 p.m., an indication of how DUI in a 24-hour town like Elko really isn’t a factor of a little evening fun. Many workers get off 12-hour shifts during different times of the day, so happy hour can happen at 7 p.m. or 7 a.m.
“It is a 24-hour town,” said Duncan Little Creek Gallery bartender Stephanie Ulrich. “A lot of people make a lot of money and there’s not much to do.”
Alcoholism and DUI
About 10 percent of the American population has a proclivity towards alcoholism, according to statistics from Psychology Today. That means that more than 31 million people have a propensity to continue to drink alcohol despite negative consequences. There is a very close tie between alcoholism and DUI, Caskey said.
“I know lots of people that get a DUI that despite the negative consequence of being thrown in jail and being then charged with a DUI whether a first offense or second offense or third offense, they continue to drink,” Caskey said. “They have increased frequency of use and increased amount of use. And they have an inability or unwillingness to stop. It interferes with their occupation, their family, their social functions.”
If someone doesn’t ever drink alcohol then alcoholism wouldn’t be symptomatic. What are the symptoms of alcoholism? Caskey used an example of a shift worker who is off seven days and on seven days.
“By 10 a.m. on his day off, he’s done with all the things he fantasized about doing when he was underground,” she said. “The car is now detailed and buffed, the garage is clean, TV sucks and I’ll go golfing. So they get a tee time and they start drinking. They manage it, they start sipping, they know that their wife and their kids are going to be home in the afternoon.”
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But Caskey described the 19th hole (the clubhouse), after-golf drinks with the buddies and watching a game at the casino as part of that day-off culture.
“They’ve already been drinking all day so they probably already have a .18,” Caskey said. “They’re late for dinner and their wife calls. He’s not really part of the home because he’s gone seven days and home seven days. And that’s a very difficult thing to get into a pattern or structure with your family system. Now he doesn’t want to go home because he wants to wait until she goes to bed because he doesn’t want to have a fight. And then the next day he’ll get up bright and early to prove to everybody he’s not an alcoholic.”
Baxter also sees this behavior in patients who arrive at the Walker Center for in-patient treatment.
“They’re not planning to get a DUI,” Baxter said. “They can convince themselves that they can drive. It is the innate ability of alcohol to lower your inhibitions. Addiction comes with built-in denial. The alcoholic is the last person to realize they have a problem.”
Alcoholics are more likely to have a second or third DUI, Baxter said, because alcohol lowers their inhibitions and changes their ability to make logical judgments.
Part of the problem is an influx of people arriving in Elko for jobs from a place where alcohol, gambling and 24-hour living isn’t part of the daily grind, Caskey said. She sees the lifestyle romanticized on television and in the movies.
“If you’re from Iowa and you’re here and there’s a place you can go to 24-7 and (think) ‘Oh my gosh — Look, I just put $5 in and I made $15. I wonder if I can put $100 in and make $5,000?’ It’s like a kid in a candy store,” Caskey said. “But no matter where you go, there you are. Anything that’s dysfunctional follows, alcoholism included.”
Education and treatment
There is only one in-patient alcohol and drug treatment facility within Elko County limits. There are others within driving distance, such as the Walker Center, but most of the beds in these facilities are regularly filled. There can be a waiting list for in-patient treatment, and sometimes even out-patient psychological services.
When there aren’t an abundance of treatment options and we don’t do a good enough job educating the community about the effects of alcohol, there can be dire consequences, said PACE Coalition director Cathy McAdoo.
“There’s such a lack of education about alcoholism and DUI here,” McAdoo said. “Parents are at the top of our priority list with this information. Parents are (youths’) number one reason for not choosing risky behaviors. It’s not their peers, it’s that they don’t want to disappoint their parents. If a young person perceives that their parents don’t want them to drink alcohol, they will be less likely to use than the young person who has a parent who doesn’t care or provides alcohol at home. And if we can impart that on kids, then we’ve changed the way our community interacts with alcohol in the long term.”
While a lack of educational information is one of the biggest obstacles in preventing DUI in Elko, it’s treatment for aiding healthy family systems that is so effective in breaking the cycle of alcoholism in the community, said Caskey.
Because many people who work in Elko aren’t deterred by high DUI costs, Caskey said, it’s up to the community to educate the at-risk population about alcohol’s effects on families, careers, and health.
“DUI and alcoholism in general is a family disease,” Caskey said. “We have to stop telling people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and instead encourage them to get help for the long-term health of our families and our community.”
The Elko Daily Free Press DUI series will run every Saturday for six weeks. Next week’s section, Part V in the series, will look at DUI offenders in the community.