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

Dec 19 2017, 6:10 am

The impact of 1920s provincial prohibition policies still linger over British Columbia long after it ended nearly a century ago. If you have lived or traveled to other parts of the world, or even ventured to provinces like Quebec, you would know that B.C. has some extremely antiquated and draconian laws over alcohol.

Simply put, B.C.’s liquor laws treat alcohol as if it were a poison or magical potion. These highly archaic and illogically restrictive policies contribute to the public view (particularly for youth) of alcohol as a forbidden fruit, a coming of adulthood, and a rebellion against authority.  Relative to the many other nations (particularly in Western Europe) that have built a significantly more mature view of alcohol consumption in their societies, responsible drinking is not taught in B.C., and such a societal norm and consensus can only be taught through a pragmatic openness and enlightenment towards the very perception of alcohol.

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. However, more often than not, because of the actions of a very small minority of people (whether it be drunk drivers or the binge drinkers who instigated the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot or even the overreaching campaigns of modern prohibitionists who themselves do not understand alcohol and the issues), the rest of the population suffers from the lack of opportunity for mature enjoyment. 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.

If we look at 1920s prohibition history, draconian laws that were passed to curb societal problems caused from irresponsible drinking only led to further backlash and even greater social problems. In 1987, prohibition was introduced to young adults in the United States when a high drinking age of 21 was enacted as the policy across the nation. As a result, irresponsible drinking behaviour increased in the United States due to not only the growth of “underground drinking” outside of adult supervision, where same-age individuals congregate, but also because of the lack of knowledge of responsible drinking behaviours when such knowledge was more difficult to attain due to the illegality of consumption. Similar prohibition arguments can also be made for the never-ending “War on Drugs,” particularly with marijuana (a drug which in fact poses little harm according to studies), which criminalizes drug usage instead of treating it more effectively as as public health and education issue. However, I will leave arguments for marijuana legalization and the highly positive results of Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs for another day.

Furthermore, given the above evidence against prohibitive policies, in what context do many of today’s B.C. laws on liquor consumption make any logical sense?

The insanity with liquor regulation goes to quite an extent in this province, here is a list of just a few of our arcane laws:

  1. Steep pricing regulations, resulting in some of the continent’s highest alcohol prices (which affects the quality of liquor that we drink; we pay more for, and can also only afford, lower quality alcohol).
  2. Monopoly and excessive control over liquor-serving establishments. Opening up a bar or nightclub is no easy task. The application to acquire a liquor-primary license (bar or nightclub) is not only time consuming, unnecessarily rigorous, and highly expensive, but more importantly, it does not promise license approval despite the required costly and lengthy process to jump through the hurdles and mazes of opening an establishment that solely serves liquor. Instead, due to the immense difficulty and uncertainty of proceeding with a liquor-primary license application, there is a growing trend of acquiring a food-primary license – to open bars that must serve restaurant food as well.The endless regulations, scrutiny, and micromanagement of liquor licensing not only restricts the opening of new establishments, but also the creativity and diversity in the usage of establishment/entertainment space. It also discourages diverse ownership, and instead encourages and favours monopolies such as the Adelphia Group (owners of Venue, Celebrities, and Caprice) and the Donelly Group (owners of numerous bars, clubs, and pubs including the Lamplighter, Bar None, Post Modern, and Republic).Excessive regulation and the favouring of monopoly owned and operated establishments only leads to the creation of homogenous and predictable environments, where even difference is controlled. Homogenization and predictability is what “No Fun City” is very well known for, if you want to open up an establishment in Vancouver there is very little room for creativity – you must work within the strict confines of the provided framework. It not only limits our access to more diverse forms of entertainment, but also restricts the organic growth of Vancouver’s culture and nightlife. For those who have traveled to Europe, Asia, New York or even Montreal, you know what I mean.
  3. The ban of the transport of alcohol across provincial borders, and a ban on serving internationally imported alcohol at private eventsIf you are an event planner, for instance, you are quite out of luck. 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?

    As an event planner, don’t get me started on the complexity and lunacy of the process in acquiring Special Occasion Licenses (SOL): you need an SOL if you want to serve alcohol at private events (e.g. weddings and fundraisers) at venues that do not have permanent licensing to serve alcohol. And if you are trying to organize an international wine tasting event, I wish you the best of luck.

  4. Public monopoly on liquor sales. If you are looking to buy liquor, chances are you’re getting it at the government operated BC Liquor Store. If not, you are buying your alcohol from an approved privately-owned “Agency Store,” located in communities which are too small to warrant a BC Liquor Store. Why is there a public monopoly on liquor sales? It’s a great government revenue generator: in 2011, government liquor stores sold $1.165-billion in alcohol, of which $413-million were profits.This begs the question, why aren’t liquor sales market driven instead? That is certainly the case in other jurisdictions and countries. Just over the border in Bellingham, one can find long aisles of liquor merchandise in supermarkets. Government is standing in the way of businesses.Even more odd: currently, 175 of 195 government liquor stores are closed on Sunday. Why? Although the government can provide no specific reason, it is a prevailing legacy of temperance and social movements during the 1920s prohibition era. In fact, British Columbia did not allow Sunday drinking until 1986 when Vancouver hosted the Expo World’s Fair.
  5. No happy hour…

Earlier this year, the provincial government legalized the serving of liquor at theatres (however, these establishments must apply for a license). The government also allowed restaurant-goers to “bring your own bottle” (BYOB) of wine to enjoy during dining (although, it’s subject to a “bottling fee” that some restaurants may choose to apply). Legalizing theatre drinking and BYOB was a step forward, and another organization has recently announced its hopes to build on the momentum that led to the successful theatre and BOYB campaigns.

The Campaign for Culture has an aim to reverse B.C.’s policy on restricting establishments from serving discounted “happy hour.” Their main tenets are three-fold: (1) to include more social interaction, (2) to allow people to make responsible decisions, and (3) to remove limits on businesses. Here is a statement from their campaign website:

Embracing safe and enjoyable social practices make our culture more dynamic and inclusive. The feeling of freedom and independence that you experience when you are able to engage openly with your fellow peers, whether it is at a local restaurant or social venue, are the moments that become both memorable and essential in living a balanced lifestyle. When you can leave your homes and experience the cultural strength of British Columbia, being able to enjoy the plenitudes that your province has to offer in a safe and responsible way, you are afforded the opportunity to embrace the true vitality that life has to offer.

Why is British Columbia’s regulatory framework surrounding liquor products so restrictive? Are British Columbians not capable of making responsible choices? What are the reasons for curtailing greater social interaction, responsible decision making and business autonomy?

The ability for establishments to offer small discounts on drinks at select times during the day is a policy that is in place in all other provinces outside of British Columbia. It is time to bring forth your concerns on policies that affect your lifestyle. It is time to ask the tough questions that get the answers. British Columbia, Where’s our Happy Hour?   

The Campaign for Culture is currently in the process of raising awareness about their initiative, you can support their cause by learning more through their website and following them on Facebook and Twitter. They will be raising the stakes this fall with a petition to end the ban on happy hour. Please support their cause!


Featured image credit: Poemsforkush // Footer image credits: Campaign for Culture

Written by Kenneth Chan, a Columnist at Vancity Buzz. Follow me on Twitter: @kjmagine

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