North Dakotas binge drinking, now Us problem

Admittedly, my column contained some tough love.” But Nodaks need tough love, and theyre going to get a double shot of it today.

John Hoff

It would be fair to say many native North Dakotans were not especially fond of my last column, ìHave you hugged a ëNodakí today?” One sent me an e-mail that began ìDear Craphead” and compared my critique of North Dakota to, in their words, picking on a retarded cousin. They then went on to say that they would defend North Dakota but that they were satisified that North Dakotans were, like ìretards,” happy the way they were.

Admittedly, my column contained some ìtough love.” But Nodaks need tough love, and theyíre going to get a double shot of it today. I want to talk about Nodak binge drinking and how it may be having an impact on our University. I raised the issue of rampant Nodak alcoholism in my last column, and some folks asked me whether the situation wasnít just as bad in rural Minnesota towns like New Prague where there is little to do but get wasted. The facts back me up, however; that as bad as binge drinking may be in rural Minnesota, (and itís pretty bad) the problem is much worse in North Dakota.

First of all, North Dakota was rated No. 1 in a federal survey in the nation for binge drinking. This fact is highlighted on the official state of North Dakota Web site in a discussion about initiatives by the governorís wife, first lady Mickey Hoeven. Of the four initiatives listed by the first lady, three involve underage drinking. She is opposed to underage drinking, by the way.

Also North Dakotaís three largest cities (Bismark, Fargo, and Grand Forks) ìwere ranked among the top 20 U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest levels of binge drinking” in a report by a public health journal. In fact, USA Today reported that Grand Forks was second in the nation for binge drinking, with San Antonio claiming the ignominious top ranking by a mere half a percent.

I was in Grand Forks when this news hit, and the attitude was if everybody drank a little harder, Grand Forks could claim the No. 1 spot. I canít find it in my heart to be harsh on folks who want to be No. 1 in the nation for something besides state ìbrain drain.” But donít just take my word for it. North Dakotaís commissioner of agriculture said ìno other state faces the (brain drain) problem to the degree North Dakota does. Thereís nobody worse off than us.”

This quote comes from a publication of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. Really, why should Nodaks get so mad at me for airing these painful truths? Their state is dying a long, slow, painful economic death and even the residents who come here for schooling apparently donít want to have a public discussion about the dark, terrible secrets they left behind. Jump in a pile of leaves and bathe in sunshine, indeed. But letís get back to that drinking problem, shall we?

The undisputed data shows that North Dakota represents an icy cold reservoir of binge drinkers, like a chilled keg just waiting to be tapped. Meanwhile, places like the University are importing Nodaks in large numbers. The grand total may not be overwhelming, but considering what little is known about binge drinking at the University ó with a heavy reliance on tools like anonymous surveys ó Iíd venture a daring theory that Nodaks are skewing the Universityís drinking data.

A recent letter to the Star Tribune complained about inebriated students around the University roaming around ìhooting and hollering.” The use of this pithy phrase in the letter struck me, and I couldnít help but think of Grand Forks on a Saturday night. Actually, on a Friday night, too. OK, technically, every night of the week except Sunday, but thatís why you have to drink twice as much on Saturday, then hoot and holler as though to say ìWeíve got beer. Wooo hooo! We sold some potatoes to Simplot, and now weíve got beeeeeeeeer.”

And why drink so much? Because life in North Dakota is better faced with a few stiff shots under your belt. I went there last weekend to see my dentist and pick up some of my stuff. One of the old rural houses I own had been broken into by, it appeared, kids with nothing better to do. One of them left a jacket, perhaps used to crawl over the broken glass shards remaining in my busted window.

I didnít touch the jacket until the Grand Forks County Sheriffís Department came to make a report. Since nothing appeared to have been stolen, the young deputy seemed gleeful he didnít have to call it a burglary on the precious local crime stats. It was, for me, just another average day in hell to add to the five long years I endured in that wretched hole.

On Feb. 9 I had been reading angry e-mails about my column but on Friday I was looking at that little Nodakís jacket, thinking how small it was Ö how my 8-year-old son would be big enough to wear a jacket like that in a few more years.

Were those kids drinking out of a parentís liquor cabinet when they got the bright idea to break into a vacant house? What kind of life would a kid have in a place so empty and bleak? Worse yet, North Dakota is not diverse and prosperous like Minnesota, but Minnesota doesnít seem to give a rip about North Dakotaís problems.

To kill the pain of life on the Great Plains, Nodaks drink. And then they move to Minnesota for schooling or a decent job, with their drinking habit along for the ride.

Perhaps Minnesota should not only care but also find a way to tackle this Nodak teen drinking problem, which has the potential to slop over into Minnesota like a fizzing head of foam.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]