Harm Reduction a Better Approach to Liquor Issues
I watched the Liquor Control Commission and City Council meetings from home last night on Mediacom channel 16. It’s been a little over two months since I watched one and I’m not going to do a complete summary. The LCC meeting was longer than the City Council meeting because there was a discussion of opening the remaining bars on Illinois Avenue still forced to close for Halloween. I want to weigh in briefly on that topic and on liquor issues generally.
First, I support allowing the remaining bars on Illinois Avenue to open on Halloween. In an ideal world, we’d start a well organized street party that reestablishes Carbondale’s reputation for Halloween festivities while avoiding the riots and property damage that sometimes accompanied past Halloween celebrations. I realize the memory of bad Halloweens past is still with us and I think it’s fine to take things slowly. First open the remaining bars on the strip. If everything goes well for a couple of years, maybe then we could think about an organized festival.
Second, I am still mystified by the cap on liquor licenses for bars. There was originally an item on the Council agenda to reduce the cap on class B (bar) liquor licenses as a result of the recent closing of Gatsby’s (Council pulled the item from the agenda). This is one of our silliest laws. Carbondale can support only so many bars. There are not an unlimited number of bar customers, so there will not be an unlimited number of bars. There is no need to cap the number of class B licenses unless the intent is to artificially hold the number of bars below the number the market can support. Since council has routinely raised the limit, I assume that is not the intent.
We should ask why we would want to artificially limit the number of bars. Does Union County limit the number of wineries? Does Marion limit the number of gas stations or hotel rooms? I realize there is a puritanical element in Carbondale. As hard as it is to believe, the fact that some people drink alcohol offends some other people’s morals. That puritanical element, certainly a minority, should not be allowed to use legislation to force their morals on the rest of us.
That brings me to my larger point. It is time to get past our obsession with liquor issues. Instead using scarce police resources to strictly control drinking, we should adopt a harm reduction approach. I do not care a bit if an 18 or 19 year old – an adult old enough to join the military and vote in elections – drinks alcohol, even if he or she drinks to the point of intoxication. On the other hand, I do care if the person drinks a dangerous amount of alcohol. I care about property damage and violence. I care about fireworks going off at 3:00 in the morning. I care about beer cans and bottles littering the streets and sidewalks. I care about drunk driving.
A harm reduction approach recognizes that police have to prioritize their resources. There simply aren’t enough police officers to strictly enforce every law and ordinance. That means we have to decide which laws and ordinances deserve the most attention. Offenses like underage consumption or possession of an open container in public should be the absolute lowest priority for police.
Instead, police should focus on the harms associated with drinking. Make it clear that if you damage property, commit a violent act, disturb your neighbors, litter, drive drunk, or create harm in other ways, you will be arrested. Also make it clear that if you don’t do those things, police aren’t likely to take the time to stop you and check your I.D. or see if that beverage in your red plastic cup is beer or lemonade.
I understand that critics might say that a harm reduction approach amounts to selective enforcement of the law. I admit it. It isn’t possible to devote equal resources to the enforcement of each and every law. We should use our best judgement to select the most important laws, those that protect us from harm, and devote most of our attention to those. The rest should be an afterthought. Council should take action to set some priorities for the police department.
Comments are welcome.