Friday, July 2, 2010

Skirmishes and Battles in the War on Alcohol At The National, State, and Local Level

Measure 1

Jay Brooks has been writing (a lot) about the latest developments in San Francisco to tax, excuse me, apply a fee to, alcohol sold within the city limits of San Francisco.
The stated rationale is that the “fee” is meant to cover the so-called harm caused by people who use alcohol by charging a fee to the distributors and retailers who sell it.
Essentially it would work by adding a fee to wholesalers who distribute within the city. Jay looks at the man behind the curtain, the Marin Institute, to look at the organization pushing the latest wave in alcohol taxes ... errr ... fees.

You should really read Jay's article about this whole issue and I only bring it up here as a caution to what is surely the next wave to strike in Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin since the beer tax has been, temporarily, shut down and the 40-oz law can't get passed.

It is important to note the distinction between this alcohol tax and, say, the tobacco tax (whose lobbyist is helping to write the beer tax here in Wisconsin). First and foremost, tobacco hurts everyone that uses it; alcohol does not. Second, tobacco, by necessity, hurts those around the person using it; alcohol does not. It is possible to use and consume alcohol in a responsible, reasonable manner that neither harms yourself or others. And those that do so should not bear the brunt of a tax meant to subsidize those that refuse to be responsible.

Of course, you might point out that we have a lot of subsidy programs in the United States where a group that is not affected help to pay for a group that is. For example, social security, welfare, unemployment, etc. But, a person does not choose to get old, be poor, or get fired; thus, in the name of fundamental fairness we aid those in need of help. One can choose not to drink and drive. And I shouldn't be asked to subsidize those who choose poorly.

Measure 2

The Madison Alcohol Licensing Review Committee ("ALRC") has approved a measure, that would prohibit retailers from selling alcohol to "habitually intoxicated persons". Whatever that means. Though it starts with "anyone arrested six times in a 180-day period will be added to the list." Right now that is about 30 people. So, for the benefit (?) that the public gains from 30 people not having access to liquor, we are asking retailers on every purchase to not only check ids, but to cross-reference that to a list of 30 people to make sure the person is not on the "banned" list. And, if the store clerk, who isn't personally liable for the action, happens to get it wrong, the store owner gets to go in front of a judge and explain himself. What's the point? Is this law really necessary?

Chris Walker, at Dane101, has an interesting take on this issue.
We should do whatever we can to prevent reckless, drunken behavior from known abusers of alcohol, especially if they’re repeatedly troublesome for law enforcement personnel. The individual should be held to account for the most part – it is, after all, their own choices that have led them to drink and led them to the liquor store in question in the first place. But if a list of names is given to liquor store owners of people the city determines should not be purchasing alcohol, and if they sell them booze anyway, to a certain extent some responsibility rests with the liquor store itself for whatever will happen after that.
But that assumes too much, in my opinion. His argument in favor of the list and the law, presumes the existence of the law. But, why should we presume it to begin with? Why should the list exist from the get-go? Walker likens it to gun ownership and requiring gun stores to do background checks on gun buyers and limiting sales to felons and repeat gun "abusers". But it's hardly a compelling comparison, unless the basis for addition to the list is multiple DUI arrests. But it isn't. The only "crime" is being drunk too often - and for that we, as society, are going to pre-emptively, maybe, possibly, prevent someone from, maybe, committing the "crime" of panhandling while intoxicated for the seventh time. Yet, oddly, a person with six DUI convictions could still be served by a retailer. How's that for messed up priorities?

Measure 3

A new law that went into effect yesterday (Thursday), may be too little, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The law applies to multiple-DUI offenders:
Require ignition interlocks for all repeat drunken drivers and for first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or greater. Ignition interlocks prevent motorists from starting their vehicles until they pass a breath test.

Make a fourth drunken driving offense a felony if it occurs within five years of a previous offense. Before, drunken driving wasn't a felony until the fifth offense.

Eliminate lighter punishments for offenders who have blood-alcohol levels below 0.10. When the Legislature dropped the limit from 0.10 to 0.08, it set lower penalties for those with levels between 0.08 and 0.099. Now, everyone will face the same punishment.

Expand to the rest of the state a Winnebago County program that gives judges the option of offering reduced jail time to offenders who complete alcohol or drug treatment. County boards would have to approve the program, which backers say would reduce recidivism.

Make first-offense drunken driving a misdemeanor if a child younger than 16 is in the vehicle. All other first-time offenses would remain traffic offenses.

Increase criminal surcharge fees on all offenders as well as fees on drunken drivers when they seek to reinstate a revoked driver's license.
These are definitely measures that I can get behind. But, still, first-time DUI is a traffic offense? And, it's not a felony until the fourth DUI (and, even then, only if within 5 years of the third offense)? Personally, I'd argue for even tougher DUI laws - there is no excuse for it. If you are drinking and impaired stay off the road. Period. First time offense needs to always be a misdemeanor. Second offense should be a felony with mandatory ignition inter-lock. So, while I applaude the modest increase in penalties, it isn't enough.

1 comment:

  1. How many people can't fly (or at least get hassled) because of the messups with the no-fly list?

    It's gonna suck when "John Smith" gets drunk all the time and every other "John Smith" can't buy a 6-pack anymore.


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