Coke in Alaska: The Crazy 80’s

The allegations that a commercial fisherman might be dealing cocaine, with a tragic outcome, were based in reality. Take the example of Ron Cole. Cole was a commercial fisherman living in the posh Hillside neighborhood of Anchorage. In the early 80’s, federal and state authorities identified him as a major coke dealer. They claimed he had purchased coke valued at about $300,000 in a single 30-day period.


On Sept. 28, 1981, Ron and his wife Darcelle were found dead of gunshot wounds in the living room of their Hillside home. Drug paraphernalia was scattered through the house.


Ron Cole wasn’t the only one delving into the cocaine trade.

1982 estimates had Alaskans spending more than $50 million to “boost their spirits with coke,” claimed an article about drugs in the fishing industry. [1] As part of an effort to grasp the drug problem in coastal fishing communities, Alaska officials convened a three-day meeting in Unalaska in 1982, during which 37 people testified about the town’s drug problem. From that testimony, officials estimated that cocaine use in the town was ten times the state’s average [2]

In 1984, Alaska State Troopers made what was, at the time, the biggest drug bust in Alaska history. It was a $36-million-a-year heroin ring. The investigation also turned up three separate drug organizations with ties to Seattle, Detroit and other cities that were importing heroin, dilaudid, cocaine and other drugs for distribution in Anchorage and Fairbanks, troopers said. Two years later there was another bust, this time a multi-million-dollar cocaine operation between northern California and Alaska.

By the late 80’s, industry journal National Fisherman was reporting that “the Coast Guard has discovered what more than a few fishermen already knew: there’s a lot more money in drug smuggling than fishing.” From the mid-80’s on, the Coast Guard dove into crackdown mode, with significant budget increases for drug operations. In 1991, they started conducting random drug tests aboard commercial fishing vessels. The “good” times were coming to an end.

[1] M.L. Edwards, “Kicking the drug habit,” National Fisherman, May 1988

[2] ibid

Background commentary on “What Happened in Craig.”

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.


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