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'Drunk City' faces up to its sobering problems : In Gallup, N.M., people are trying to reform their liquor laws and their community's image.

May 14, 1990|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GALLUP, N.M. — Truckers rolling through on Interstate 40 refer to this city of 20,000 on their CBs as "Drunk City, U.S.A."

The label reflects Gallup's long-established reputation as a place where people--most of them from the nearby Navajo reservation--come to get drunk.

Along Route 66 and its assortment of bars and package outlets, drunks slump against buildings a block from the Santa Fe train yard, where passenger trains bound for Los Angeles and Chicago stop each day.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that surrounding McKinley County has the worst alcoholism problem in the nation. On average, 26,000 drunks are taken into protective custody each year in Gallup, and the area's rate of alcohol-related traffic accidents is twice the state average.

"When you go places, you have become the butt of a joke," businesswoman Barbara Stanley complained. "People ask where to get 'Drunk City' T-shirts."

Like many Gallup residents, Stanley, the executive vice president of the local Chamber of Commerce, is fed up with the drunkenness, and with the damage to the city's reputation.

She and other residents say the real story is that Gallup finally has acknowledged its problem and is determined to clean it up.

A 70-member association of local businesses known as the Gallup Downtown Development Group recently lobbied hard for passage of a first-of-its-kind zoning ordinance that will ban package liquor sales in the downtown area within five years. It passed despite initial opposition by the city's powerful liquor retailers, who eventually "came in and saw the writing on the wall and withdrew their protest," said Robert Rosebrough, a lawyer who heads the development group.

Gallup's feisty mayor, Eddie Munoz, was elected on an anti-alcohol reform platform three years ago. He has since helped pass state legislation that enabled Gallup and McKinley County to ban drive-up windows at liquor stores, a matter now tied up in litigation. He also supported a bill to let local residents vote on a 5% alcohol excise tax, with the money earmarked for alcohol treatment programs. Residents voted 3 to 1 for the tax, which is now being collected.

Munoz almost overdid it. Last winter he suggested erecting billboards proclaiming Gallup the "drunken driving capital of the world." That led to a recall election in which Munoz narrowly retained office. Although the mayor claimed the liquor industry was behind the recall, some opponents were residents who thought Munoz was damaging the town's fledgling reputation for reform.

Still, alcohol remains a major headache for Gallup. Most of the prosecutions here are alcohol-related, says Dist. Atty. Forrest Buffington. On a city map Buffington has tacked to his wall, clusters of blue and brown stickpins mark the places where police have made protective custody pickups.

"You definitely can see we've got a real maggot problem here," the blunt-spoken Buffington said, indicating the bars with the greatest number of pickups. "There's no reason this should be allowed to persist."

Under the protective custody program, begun in 1973 after public drunkenness was decriminalized, police hold people in the city drunk tank for 12 hours before releasing them. No attempt is made to put them through alcohol detoxification.

The city recently asked the federal government for $2 million to replace the drunk tank, which Munoz contends is "inhumane," with a 150-bed detox facility and four after-care centers on the Navajo reservation.

More attention must be paid to conditions on the reservation, Munoz and others argue, since Gallup's importance as a retail center for the 165,000 Navajos partly explains the alcohol problem. Alcohol sales or possession have long been prohibited on the reservation.

The "brightest hope" for the future is a recent $200,000 planning award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major health-care philanthropy, to prepare a proposal for a long-range regional alcohol abuse program, Rosebrough says.

If the proposal is approved, the foundation will commit $3 million over five years.

But from her vantage point at the Chamber of Commerce, Barbara Stanley is wary of easy-sounding solutions. A lifelong Gallup resident, she has seen reform movements come and go.

"We have sort of a multiheaded problem here that's going to take a whole lot of work," she said.

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