Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The City Of Madison Wants To Ban The Sale of Singles

The State Journal ran an article yesterday about a proposal by District 18 Alderman Michael Schumacher to extend a District 4 and District 8 ban on the sale of single bottles of beer (and fortified wine).
Schumacher on Tuesday will propose a city-wide ban on the sale of less than a six pack of beer or malt liquor (except imports or microbrews), fortified wine and less than a pint of liquor.
I spoke with Mr. Schumacher yesterday about this proposal, which is only that right now, to clear up some of the issues. It was a summary call, so I won't detail it too much, but here's the gist:

- First, it would simply extend portions of the "Alcohol Beverage License Density Plan" (Mad. Ord. Sec. 38.05(9)(o)) city-wide
- "Import" means what you would expect it to; though whether "Guinness", or other 'foreign' beers that are licensed for production here in the states, would count is not immediately clear (sorry, I forgot to ask about this)
- "Microbrew" is a relatively novel definition - at this point it is defined as anything less than 150,000 barrels per year. This would mean that Leinie's is a "micro" but Sam Adams isn't - thus, retailers could sell singles of Leinie's, but not of Sam Adams. As a practical matter how is a retailer to know whether a brewery is 150K barrels or not. Quick a quiz - name all of the breweries that are under 150K barrels: Sam Adams, Leinies, New Glarus, Ale Asylum, Lakefront, Summit, Bells, Great Lakes, New Belgium, Stone, Goose Island, Avery.
- I'll save my ire for another day, because I don't think it's a good solution; but, admittedly, Aldr. Schumacher agrees that it doesn't address the root issues that it is trying to re-channel

So, what is the "issue" - what problem is this ordinance attempting to abrogate?

A good question. Alcohol-related crime primarily. Crime, generally defined, as "anything against the law" or even just "socially unacceptable" - which would include societal ills from theft, muggings, panhandling and fights to vagrancy and loitering. Last year, somewhat quietly, and to moderate skepticism a few downtown districts restricted the sale of single bottles of certain types of alcohol - we'll call it "brown bag" alcohol - ultra-cheap 40s, fortified wines, sampler-size liquors, etc. Not surprisingly, this was resounding success - people (the types who engage in crime after getting a little "liquored up" weren't buying these and the alcohol-related crime decreased in these districts.

Or rather, the alcohol-related crime moved to other areas where these could be purchased. So, the argument goes, if we restrict where people can buy this stuff then crime will go down all over the city - primarily in parks and other public areas where people congregate. It doesn't solve the problem; we still have fights (even alcohol-related) and thefts and loitering, but at least it isn't because someone spent their dinner money on a 40oz of Olde English on an empty stomach.

Other cities, like Seattle, have instituted similar measures to some success. In Seattle's case, rather than the import/micro distinction, the law simply names the specific brands. Obviously, this results in a situation where the brands are re-branded.

It's far from an ideal situation - and, to his credit, Aldr. Schumacher at least recognizes and acknowledges this. But, if you think, like he does, that something must be done it becomes a question of how: both in the short-term with stop-gaps like the current proposal and in the long-term to address the root causes.

I want to withhold my own "official" judgment until I see where this proposal is going. The libertarian in me recoils in horror, but I am sympathetic to the plight of city administrators who need to address issues and the sometimes-less-then-ideal world it results in.


  1. Isn't bulk packaging of beer (40s, 22s, etc, basically anything bigger than a 12oz bottle) a "green" initiative? Think about the glass and metal required to construct a 40oz bottle, and compare that to 3.5 12oz bottle. You have 3-4 times the amount of metal (caps) and probably 2x the amount of glass. Then think about how much more volume a 6pack takes up than a 40oz bottle, and the additional diesel that is burned by shipping it. Lastly, the 40oz doesn't need ANY cardboard whatsoever, so no trees are killed for it either (aside from the paper-thin label).

    God, why couldn't Madison think of the environment for once??

  2. Personally, I think this is more of an attempt to outlaw "drinking while poor and/or destitute".

    I sympathize with Ald. Schumacher on trying to reduce drunken vagrancy and crime, but it just screams classism to me (while I doubt that's the intent).

    What's wrong with alcohol treatment? Either boosting funding of it and also via court order? Isn't a handful of people (with a history of these crimes) that are being targeted? It's not like you're an instant criminal alcoholic because you tried a 40 of Colt .45 for the first time.

  3. 40oz packaging does ship to the retailer in a large cardboard box, so there are some trees killed for it. Not to mention the appropriate sized paper sack to drink from.


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