Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Guesses Re Liquor Law Changes - Part II

A few days ago I wrote a post about some of the "quick win" changes I thought we would see come out of the BC liquor policy review and now I want to look at some of the bigger, more complicated and controversial changes I think will occur down the road.

It seems I am a day late in posting though as Mr Yap has stolen the thunder and announced that he has recommended that booze be sold in BC supermarkets, due to overwhelming public support for the idea. Mainstream media, blogs and and social media are all onto Yap's lone reveal in regards to the 70 recommendations he put in his report to to Attorney General and Justice Minister Suzanne Anton.

It became very apparent to me and others who met with Yap and who followed the #bcliquor review process that the sale of alcohol in BC supermarkets, once thought to be an impossibility, was definitely one the table and being considered. But Yap's announcement does not guarantee anything as the idea has to be approved by Anton and the rest of the Liberal brain trust.

Personally, I think it will happen, but we will only see alcohol sold in larger retail chains, with them having to build a store within a store, to ensure limited access to minors and to segregate the booze from shoppers who may struggle with addictions issues and from those who find the presence of alcohol troubling. As well, the store will have to secure a liquor retail license, which looks like it will be no easy task as Yap has recommended not to increase the number of licenses above what now exists.

I also think you will see the government keep a stranglehold on minimum pricing for booze so that these large retail chains do not sell alcohol at rock bottom prices. It will take the government until 2015 to roll this out, working out the bugs with few trial runs, but I honestly think you will see at least some version of booze in supermarkets, Costco outlets, Walmart,  etc., by the end of 2015.

I also do not think as many outlets will not even bother looking into selling booze as it is going to be a major hassle and expense to build a segregated area for booze, deal with the LDB, put up with liquor inspectors and all the other joys that come with selling booze in this province.

And, of course, they are going to have to obtain a license to sell booze and, as I mentioned, this will not be an easy proposition.

I am going to write another post in the next day or to talk about the whole concept of booze in supermarkets and address some of the ridiculous ideas being floated by those against the idea, like the Alliance of Beverage Licensees (ABLE), health authorities and temperance movements.

Another change I think will be implemented, but that will take a long time to come into play is one that simplifies the liquor license system. I think the government will move towards a one-license system, but will start the move by making changes that will allow food primary licensees apply for endorsements to their existing licenses that would allow them to operate as a liquor primary after a certain hour in the evening and that will allow liquor primary licensees apply for endorsements that will allow them to have minors in their establishments, in the company of responsible, sober adults, up to a certain point in the day.

In the end, I think the Liberals will work towards a license to simply sell booze and the licensee will decide what type of establishment and clientele they want. The restrictions will be listed on the license, an example possibly being "mixed ages until 6 PM, +19 only after", so as to put all licensees on a level playing field. I think you will also see the silly restrictions on dancing in restaurants, music in restaurants, etc., removed.

The lines are so blurred right now as to who is a bar and who is a restaurant. Think about it. The law allows me to take my 3-year-old daughter into a restaurant with dozens of beer taps, a large selection of wines, spirits and hundreds of seats, even when it is packed and happening at 8 PM, yet the law forbids me to take her into a quiet, mellow neighbourhood pub on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy a brunch.

Another major change I think we will see is the process for getting a listing in government liquor stores (GLS) modified to help support small, local manufacturers and to better give BC consumers access to locally produced beers, wines and spirits.

Many local breweries, smaller wineries and artisan distilleries cannot sell via GLS outlets because they do not meet the outdated production thresholds that are in place to get a listing. The current model is based on large production manufacturers, you need to produce enough of a product to supply 40 GLS locations, virtually making it impossible for small, local breweries, wineries and distilleries to sell via the BC Liquor Stores. Some GLS outlets are forced to break the law to put their local products on their shelves.  I think they are going to give the local GLS management more freedom to stock what they want to stock, as opposed to what they are told they can sell by LDB head office, giving the consumers what they want, as opposed to allowing some bureaucrat with little-to-no-knowledge of some products decide what the consumers want.

To compliment this, I think the LDB will be directed to create special areas to highlight BC products, beyond the current BC wine sections, and put more emphasis on promoting BC products. I think local manufacturers will also be able to deliver directly to GLS locations.

Lastly, I think you will see the LCLB and their liquor inspectors be stripped of some of their current powers. The LCLB and their enforcement folks have long been the law, END of STORY. Liquor inspectors now have huge discretionary powers to interpret the often ambiguous and poorly worded liquor policies as they see fit and to enforce as they see fit. There is no current appeal process if a liquor inspector nails a licensee with an infraction and only through an expensive judicial review can a licensee defend themselves.

Because the liquor inspectors operate without fear of being held accountable for their often bizarre and random rulings, there is a fear amongst licensees in regards to getting on the wrong side of the LCLB and their inspectors. I think you will see an independent review board set up that will be relatively inexpensive to access and which will deal with licensee appeals to decisions made by inspectors. Yap seemed very interested in the subject of curtailing LCLB powers and increasing training and knowledge among liquor inspectors to help rid the province of this culture of fear among business owners selling booze in regards to their often random and arbitrary liquor inspectors who can currently shut them down with no recourse by the licensee.

These ideas are not based in fact, just my thoughts and they are just a drop in the bucket compared to what may be in Yap's recommendations. As I mentioned, there have been 70 recommendations put forward and no one but Yap, his team and the office of the Justice Minister and Attorney General know exactly what they are. I hope they make the report public soon so we can have some real debate and discussion about what may happen in the next few years in regards to liquor policies in this province.

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