Opinion: Oppressive BC liquor laws severely impede events and festivals

Dec 19 2017, 6:21 am

Ever wonder why some festivals and events in British Columbia are tame or even dry altogether? Although organizers of such special events and festivals would love to serve alcohol, overcoming the red tape nightmare of oppressive BC liquor laws is often not worth their time nor money. Restaurant and bar operators are not the only ones that have to swim through the red tape nightmare of British Columbia’s liquor policies. For organizers of special events and festivals, acquiring the required permits is not an straightforward task either.

RELATED ARTICLE: Time for B.C. to end its draconian laws on alcohol

The permits and laws over alcohol served at such events and festivals are unnecessarily complex and costly, such outdated and draconian policies and complex permits have had adverse impacts on the financial and logistical feasibility of hosting such events and festivals where alcohol is served. About a month ago, I did an in-depth exploratory article on local attitudes on alcohol and the highly restrictive laws and regulations the BC liquor board (and municipalities) places upon restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. To reiterate on that article:

A society that shows it can responsibly enjoy alcohol, without treating it as some pariah or taboo, is also a sign of a mature society…A more mature view and open practice to responsible drinking would significantly decrease the number of cases of “binge drinking.” To make alcohol a taboo implies that drinking should be done secretly and rarely.

Focusing on the liquor board’s impact on permanent establishments and the ban on happy hour in my last article, I largely left out the draconian and archaic liquor policies that are enforced on special events and festivals. This includes concerts, cultural festivals and celebrations, weddings, wine tasting events, and other private parties at venues both outdoor and indoor that do not have permanent alcohol licensing. If you wish to organize such events, you are required to go through the lengthy, costly, and time consuming process to acquire an Special Occasion License (SOL) for each event you organize. In the aforementioned first article, I briefly described my recent personal experience with acquiring SOLs:

I was an organizer for a major international week-long 2,000-person conference in Vancouver this past spring, and one of the several social events we held was meant to showcase the culture and traditions of the world.

Delegations were permitted to host a booth that serves food and samples of alcohol from their home country. This is a traditional social event held at each edition of the conference, so when Vancouver could not pull off the alcohol aspect of allowing delegations to bring liquor from their home country for delegates’ to sample, it was terribly embarrassing. It says a lot about ourselves, as this has been a tradition of this particular “Global Village” social event at the conference for 21-years running – and Vancouver and British Columbia were the first to break the very tradition and concept of the event. Instead, as there was still a great desire to serve any brand of alcohol (even if it was a local brand), we had to direct the hosts of the delegation booths to buy their alcohol locally upon arrival at the price gouged provincially-operated BC Liquor Store. All alcohol served at the event had to be purchased from the BC Liquor Store.

Even Singapore – last year’s host city – was able to pull it off. That’s right, we have more draconian liquor laws than the draconian city state of Singapore. The organization that governs the conference year after year could not understand what the difference was between bringing a bottle of wine from another country to serve to your friends at a house party and serving it to a larger audience at an event. Neither could the hosts of the booths, particularly the European delegations, who were completely flabbergast over our local laws. Where is the logic in all of this? What harm does any of this do?

To add on to the context of this specific experience, our conference was five-days long and we were required to host a big dance social event each and every night at a different and unique location. Two of our nightly events were held at a venue that had an in-house venue liquor license, while the other three nightly events required SOLs as the venues did not have any in-house liquor licensing. Bear in mind that each of these five social events consisted of 2,000+ university student attendees within the age group of 18 to 25: hosting such large-scale parties over several consecutive nights has never been attempted in Vancouver.

The experience my team and event endured could very well be a perfect case example of why BC’s SOL process is highly problematic, costly, and unnecessary for event organizers. Here are some of the issues with the SOL (please take note of some sarcasm below):

  1. Outdoor SOL events have to end by 10:00 pm. It greatly limits the type of event planners can organize, whether it be an outdoor concert, festival, wedding, or dance. The 10:00 pm SOL rule applies even when the chosen outdoor venue does not break any municipality bylaws such as noise restrictions. There’s really nothing like an outdoor summer party that stops serving alcohol at 10:00 pm!
  2. Individuals are not allowed to apply for any type of SOL (they are only allowed to apply for family occasions such as weddings), only organizations are allowed to apply for any type of SOL.  
  3. Otherwise unlicensed businesses (without a liquor-primary or food-primary license) are not allowed to acquire an SOL. 
  4. There is a cap of two SOLs per month. There is no logic in allowing only two SOLs per month, it is simply an arbitrary and highly unnecessary policy. The only effect it might have is limit the number of alcohol SOLs an organization can have in any one month, it’s certainly a policy that would be fitting for “No-Fun-Couver.”
  5. Liquor for an SOL event cannot be bought from a cold beer or wine store, nor can it be imported. Liquor for an SOL event must be purchased from the government-operated BC Liquor Store. See my personal example above with organizing “Global Village.” This policy is not flexible, so if you are organizing an international wine tasting event, I wish you the best of luck!
  6. Minors (18 years of age and below) are not allowed into SOL events, except in weddings or when accompanied by adults. There’s nothing like imposing barrier fencing to enhance the ambiance of an event! But really though, when minors are excluded from participation or when fencing must be erected to filter minors from entering the drinking area, it provides for an very awkward and uninviting social atmosphere. One example I can quickly draw from is UBC’s recent “First Week BBQ,” where one-third of the concert field was fenced off just for the minors. Minors were unable to socialize and enjoy the event in an organic fashion like everyone else, despite paying for the same ticket price as those 19 years of age and over.
  7. Liquor availability cannot be advertised at an SOL event. This rule basically goes against the whole underlying principle of marketing, especially if an organizer is barely breaking even. Marketing attracts greater interest and attendance, therefore helping organizers break even on the costs to host the event.
  8. SOL events cannot make a total profit. There is also a highly restraining price minimum and maximum for liquor sold at SOL events. When you account for the cost to buy the liquor, followed by other costly budgetary items like security, equipment, labour, and venue rental costs, SOL events often barely break even (if not, a money losing affair). In fact, the SOL application also requires a security plan to be submitted should total anticipated attendance exceed 500 individuals – in other words, high mandatory professional security costs are enforced despite the limited avenues to recover such high operating labour costs. There is no financial incentive for an organizer to create an SOL event, other than a required/contracted commitment to provide clients and attendees an event experience that consists of alcohol. If you do make a total profit on your SOL event, not just profits from the bar, you must provide a proof of donation of profits within 60 days after an event has been held. The proof required must also include a financial statement and documentation that indicates the charity has received the profits, such as a letter of gratitude.
  9. SOL events are not allowed to sell spirits. Not only do they take your profits away, the liquor board also limits the organizer’s capability to make money to cover their operating expenses! In this case, the variety of drinks served at the bar of an SOL event is limited.
  10. There is an exemption process for some of these rules, but the application costs $100.00 and could take several weeks longer in addition to the regular SOL process. The most common exemption requests are:
    • Extension of an event beyond 10:00 pm for outdoor events or up until 2:00 am for indoor events. This is also pending on local government (bylaws, noise restrictions) and local police approval. This is a highly time consuming and complex process.
    • The ability to sell hard liquor at a public special event. For some arbitrary reason, the local government (e.g. City of Vancouver) and local police (e.g. Vancouver Police Department) have a say in this as well. This is another time consuming and complex process, in addition to the regular SOL process through the liquor board.
    • Charge more for drinks than the prices specified under the “Special Occasion License Liquor Price Schedule.” This is rarely allowed.
    • Hold more than two Special Occasion Licenses per month or hold more than 24 per year. This is a common request from conferences which host consecutive events over a span of several days, with each event requiring an SOL. The liquor board can usually be understanding and permissive on this regard.
    • The SOL applicant is not a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident of Canada.

All of the above is particularly frustrating for organizers of annual events, such as festivals. Organizers must go through the exact same process every year for the same event. With such complex and costly procedures to organize great events, organizers are greatly deterred to organize an event that requires an SOL: in fact, it contributes to the lack of such events and festivals in the province. 

In my last article on liquor laws, I ended off with the Campaign For Culture’s initiative to bring happy hour to BC. Since then, the Campaign for Culture has expanded their goals to push for a holistic review and overhaul of BC’s liquor regulations and regulatory framework. They will be asking for a comprehensive review of our liquor regulations as piecemeal changes to highly archaic liquor laws are not the best way forward for effective and real change.

Here is the Campaign for Culture’s proposal to reform some of the most problematic aspects of the Special Occasion License (SOL):

  1. More freedom in licensing. The cumbersome restrictions that are put in place in British Columbia which regulate all facets of holding any special function demands critical review and revision. Although individuals and groups are able to throw events at establishments, the additional regulations that are imposed are arbitrary and may seriously jeopardize these parties’ ability to actually create formidable and legitimate events. By overregulating the duration of any event, the type of alcohol that can be served, the amount that can be charged, the frequency of events by a licensee, as well as license fee restrictions, the province of British Columbia is imposing additional and unnecessary costs on parties that hope to increase the degree of social interaction and enjoyment that all people should be entitled to. In removing the more out-dated aspects of process, the government can further contribute to the freedom and vitality of its people, for the benefit of all communities.
  2. Consistency for outdoor events. The time when we can enjoy the company of one another in the great outdoors is an opportunity that we should not only cherish but actively work to sustain and strengthen. The archaic regulations surrounding Outdoor Licensing undercut the notion of equality and largely disenfranchise citizens. If any fines imposed on licensees are consistent with licensed establishments such as local pubs, the benefits and regulations should also be the same. Outdoor events should be allowed to operate more freely, with easier mobility and inviting atmospheres that allow the citizenry to fully embrace the attributes that make British Columbia so great.
  3. Increased price flexibility and additional choice. Licensed events should operate in the very same capacity as licensed venues. When event licensees are afforded greater choice in levying fees that will offer the best fit for their function and their attendees, we can ensure that any event that is thrown will be granted an honest and legitimate opportunity for success, especially considering the inequality that already resides in the ability of licensed establishments to freely charge patrons what they wish. Additionally, the unnecessary restrictions that are imposed on the type of alcohol that can be served ultimately become impediments to the citizens that hope to enjoy their favourite beverage with a several friends and colleagues at an event that they have looked forward to for some time. By offering greater price flexibility and additional choices at functions, licensees can ensure that their events are successful while better catering to our diverse population.

In conclusion, taken from the Campaign of Culture:

Imagine the excitement building in the pits of your stomach on the journey up to the Festival, the one you’ve been waiting months to enjoy. All the close friends aren’t too far away, only a few cars behind. Thankfully, you made it just before the traffic really became unbearable. The sun is shining, reflecting off sunglasses and bright coloured clothing as you unload and unpack for the weekend.

It’s dusk now and your favourite band performs in ten minutes. That euphoric feeling of freedom and vitality, you know, the one you’ve been waiting months to experience is about to quickly dissipate. What do you mean no alcohol? No alcohol within any proximity of the stage? I have to stand behind fences that will leave me with a better view of the lavatory facilities than my favourite band? Not exactly what you expected from a world-class destination is it?

Let’s not ruin some of the best experiences that individuals can partake in. Consistency in liquor regulations throughout British Columbia will help to create spaces that are inclusive and representative of the energy and vibrancy that make this province so great.

You can support the Campaign for Culture by learning more through their website and following them on Facebook and Twitter.


Written by Kenneth Chan, a Columnist at Vancity Buzz. Follow me on Twitter: @kjmagine
Featured image credit: Oscar Quiroz // Footer image credit: Campaign for Culture

Special Occasion License Reform