Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sue the Problem Away

The battle of Whiteclay takes another turn.

The suit, filed by the Oglala Sioux tribe, alleges the defendants are "engaged in a common enterprise focused on assisting and participating in the illegal importation of alcohol" onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol is illegal.

They're going after the big boys, which is necessary when asking for $500 million.

The defendants include Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide Inc, SAB Miller, Molson Coors Brewing Company and Pabst Brewing Company, as well as four retailers in Whiteclay, Nebraska and the distributors who sell to them.

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in federal court in Lincoln, Nebraska, claims the defendants have knowingly turned Whiteclay into a major source of alcohol smuggling onto the reservation, selling volumes of beer "far in excess of an amount that could be sold in compliance with the laws of the state of Nebraska."

Actually the reservation border is completely open, with only signs on the major roads telling you that you have entered, which makes the use of the term "smuggling" a bit of an exaggeration. (This doesn't make that border less real,though; the legal complexities of tribal/county/state/federal jurisprudence would make a European Union attorney cry.)

I won't pretend to know if this has any legal validity, but I do think it marks a bit of a change in tribal thinking. It's a civil suit, seeking monetary compensation, not an actual end to the practice. To me that indicates that the tribal government has effectively given up on prohibition and just wants help in dealing with the effects. Of course, legalizing and taxing alcohol sales would also accomplish this, but apparently they can't bring themselves to admit that the problem is internal and should be handled internally.

Whiteclay has been a bone of contention for years, and has been held to be legal. I do think it is unseemly, like putting a doughnut shop in the lobby of a weight-loss clinic. I would guess this lawsuit is also designed to shine a bigger light (Reuters is an international news organization) on the situation and try to shame the beer companies a little, or cause to them to decide it's not worth the trouble to do business there and agree to shut down in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.

If that were to happen, however, the tribal members would just have to drive farther to get the alcohol, likely resulting in more accidents. This problem is far beyond something that can be handled legally. Even $500 million probably wouldn't be enough for what would be required to deal with addiction at that level.