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Blood alcohol levels in Anchorage DUI arrests paint a troubling picture

By Rhonda McBride 6:02 PM December 24, 2013

Blood alcohol levels of people arrested for drinking and driving are excessively high, police say

ANCHORAGE – Police have long noticed this trait in drunk drivers: They often don’t know they’re drunk because they can walk, talk and appear normal.

It’s one of the quirks of how the body metabolizes alcohol. Someone who is stumbling drunk may actually have a much lower blood alcohol level than someone who might appear more sober. Despite appearances, this seemingly collected driver is still impaired.

One thing police said they know for sure is the blood alcohol levels of people arrested for drinking and driving are excessively high.

Take last weekend in Anchorage, which police said is a snapshot of the problem. Out of 13 arrests, 10 or about 75 percent, had blood alcohol levels at least two times the legal limit — which is .08. One driver had more than three times the limit.

“It’s something that’s not unusual,” said police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro. “In a lot of our DUI arrests that we see on a weekly basis, a lot of times the drivers are well over the legal limit — and a lot of times, twice the legal limit.”’

Castro has been tracking the numbers this year and has found there’s no typical DUI offender.

“It’s all age groups. It’s all times of the week. We’ve arrested a driver for being three times over the legal limit at noon on Saturday,” Castro said, who noted that an 83-year-old man was also arrested over the weekend for a blood alcohol level that was twice the limit.

Those who work substance abuse treatment programs are not surprised. They believe the arrest numbers reflect the seriousness of alcohol addiction in Alaska.

“The DUI is usually just the tip of the iceberg,” said Capt. Bill Finley, who has worked with street drunks in California and those in recovery at the Clitheroe Center in Anchorage. “If somebody gets to the point where they’ve got two or three times the legal limit of alcohol, they’ve got an issue.”

And it’s not a one-time thing, Finley, but a product of heavy drinking that’s developed over a number of years.

Finley has worked with many people who are good at masking how drunk they are.

“They may be able to show up at work,” Finley said. “They may not lose their job, but their home is a wreck. The idea of a functional alcoholic, I think, is a myth.”

It’s hard to really know someone, especially someone who has learned to be good at hiding their alcoholism, Finley said, who believes that’s why many heavy drinkers fall off the radar of bartenders — and even their own family and friends.

“They need help,” Finley said.

Rosalie Nadeau, head of Anchorage’s Akeela treatment program, agrees with Finley about how the extremely high blood alcohol numbers are a symptom of a bigger problem.

“It tells me that a lot of heavy drinkers never get stopped,” Nadeau said. “It also tells me that we have people, who are so acclimated to alcohol, they don’t know they’re alcoholics — like the frog in the pot of water on the stove that doesn’t know it’s in trouble until the water is boiling.”

Another problem, Nadeau said, is Alaska’s attitude in the workplace toward those alcoholics.

“Tolerance of functional alcoholics is high,” Nadeau said. “It’s an attitude that you don’t see in most other places.”

To Nadeau, it’s this attitude of widespread denial which contributes to Alaska’s high rates of alcoholism. In the experience of treatment counselors, a DUI arrest is the start of saying something is wrong.

And something was clearly wrong for a woman spotted by citizen volunteers last weekend leaving a downtown Anchorage bar. She backed her car into a light pole.

“Officers were able to catch up with her in a few minutes,” Castro said. “And her breath sample, that she ended up providing police with, was a .299. Obviously she was three-and-a-half times the legal limit, already damaged her car, but fortunately didn’t kill anybody or harm herself.”

Anchorage has had five deaths this year due to drinking and driving.

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