Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My Guesses as to What Will Come out of the Liquor Review

Yesterday, Parliamentary Secretary and Liberal MLA, John Yap, handed over his report to Attorney General and Justice Minister Suzanne Anton with his recommendations for modernizing BC liquor policies based on information collected via the massive consultation with BC citizens and stakeholders in the BC alcohol world.

I have been asked by many folks what changes will come from the whole process and I have to be honest in saying that I really have no freaking clue what Anton will implement on behalf of the BC Liberals.

Yes, I was apart of a group that met with John Yap and his crew and I have been on more than a few radio programs talking about the move to sensibly modernize BC liquor policies, but other than making educated guesses based on reactions during CAMRA's conversation with Yap, reading Yap's blog posts and the submissions of others to his committee found on the review website, I have no more official information than the next person.

For what it is worth, here is what I think may happen.

First off, I am getting the impression that BIG changes are coming and the Liberals are seeing this as their chance to be THE government to make one of the most important marks on culture and society in BC history by modernizing the way we perceive and deal with alcohol in this province. Suzanne Anton and her crew know they have the attention of a very wide cross section of the BC citizenry, from big business folks to Joe Sixpack, and I don't think much is off the table at this point as far as what the government is considering. The government will proceed with caution, with some of the more controversial changes being considered, as they cannot give the impression they are disregarding negative health impacts and the possible risks to public safety attached to liberalizing liquor policy, but I really do believe they will go further with changes than the average person believes.

I believe, as do many others, that the changes will not all come at once. There are some "quick wins", a term John Yap is avoiding like the plague, that will not be that hard to implement and which already have a proven track record of popularity and success in other jurisdictions. Down the road, we will see a second wave of changes, those dealing with the more sensitive and controversial ideas being considered.

Here are a few changes I think you will see implemented in the next year.

Happy hours, or discretionary pricing, as CAMRA BC framed it, is, in my mind, a slam dunk. It will take little to bring this popular concept back and as of right now, BC is the only province that continues to  prohibit licensees from being able to change the prices of their alcoholic beverages during the course of a day. The way it works now, a licensee must set the drink price each day and stick with that price from opening to closing. I think you will see controls and limits set as to how low the drink specials will be allowed to go and as to what hours "happy hours" are allowed be held, so as to cut down on the binge drinking concerns those against the concept have, but I honestly believe that we will see the return of this consumer favourite which also benefits the businesses, drawing customers into their establishments during traditionally quite times.

Farmers Markets allowing the sale of alcohol I think will be another change that will be phased in sooner than later. I do think you will see the government make the changes necessary to allow for local craft breweries, wineries and possibly artisan distilleries to provide limited amounts of samples to consumers at farmers markets and sales of packaged products for consumers to take away to be consumed elsewhere. The idea is a popular one, one that fits with the farmers market concept of direct sales from the manufacturer-producer to consumer and this has been very popular in jurisdictions like Nova Scotia and Oregon to name a few places. I do not think you will see actual on-site consumption areas, like beer gardens, at the markets, at least not at first, but I can see this being a part of a long-range master plan. And because the wine industry is behind this concept 100%, the government will immediately give it a second look, especially now that our beloved Premier is the MLA for a riding smack-dab in the middle of wine country.

Liberalization of the rules around serving alcohol at festivals and special events, is another concept the Liberals seem to be considering, especially as some of the law enforcement folks they spoke to support this idea.

It appears the government is considering making changes that will make beer gardens and festivals more family friendly. As it works right now, many festivals that may allow minors, have segregated areas, commonly known as beer gardens, where alcohol can be purchased and consumed. These areas, also referred to as "beer ghettos", only allow +19 folks, which means if a family is attending a local festival in their city-town and Mom, Dad or both want to stop to have a drink with lunch they either have to split up, as kids are not allowed in the alcohol consumption areas, or they just simply decide forgo the pleasure.  By allowing minors into these areas, responsible parents can enjoy an alcoholic drink, in the company of their kids, just like they can in a restaurant, bowling ally, wedding, family reunion event, etc. It is also thought that by making the atmosphere more family oriented, the frat party, beer garden, atmosphere will lessen and rowdiness will decrease, as beer swilling twentysomethings get the evil eye from old man dads like myself.

The other concept out there is to do away with the requirement to have a segregated beer garden area and allow festival goers to walk around with their drink in hand to be enjoyed where they want within the confines of the event. This would rid events of those segregated booze ghettos, where everyone consuming a drink is packed into a confined space. It is this effect and the more family-oriented atmosphere that I have heard has law enforcement supporting these changes.

Alcohol in parks and at the beach is another change that may happen on the provincial level but that does not mean local governments will be on board and pass by-laws allowing for the same in their jurisdictions. Much like the battle fought by Vancouver breweries to have local by-laws amended to be allowed to have on-site beer lounges after the province gave the go ahead, I think you will see some communities bulk at allowing adults to enjoy a glass of wine with their picnic meal at the park.

Licensees buying direct from manufacturers and private retail liquor stores (LRS). As it is right now, licensees must go through the government liquor stores (GLS) to buy their stock...well in theory, as many are cheating and going to their local LRS outlet to get speciality products that the government stores don't stock or to fill up shelves on busy nights after the GLS outlets are closed. Restaurants and bars would be free to order cases of wine from small BC wineries or buy a bottle or two of wine or a few bombers of a limited release craft brew from their local LRS without having to go through the restrictive and bureaucratic beast that is the LDB. Breweries are already allowed to deliver, on behalf of the government, as I believe artisan distilleries are as well, directly to licensees, which helps some, but by allowing licensees to buy from LRS's, it frees them from the restrictive GLS hours and sometimes limited inventory and takes to burden off breweries from having to make these deliveries direct to the licensee's location.

There are a host of other changes I believe will occur, but the above are the changes that I think, in the short term, will grab most of the headlines and be most noticeable. In a few days I will lay out some of the changes I think will happen, but which will take some more time to implement due to their complexity and controversial nature, such as booze in supermarkets.

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