SR editorial on booze ban

Editorial from the August 20 edition

It’s a tough one. The alcohol impact zone issue. For months, the city has been messaging downtown businesses, particularly shop owners who sell alcohol, to get on board with its proposed alcohol impact zone. The zone, the first in the state if created, would encompass Portland’s downtown, Old Town and Goose Hollow, and would ban the sale of lower priced, higher alcohol products. And for as long as this has been a thrust of the city, Street Roots has been grappling with where we stand on the issue, like two sides of a brain trying to reason out a single position.

On one side, (let’s call it the left side) our collective brain gives merit to the arguments for this zone: that low-priced, high-octane hooch means easy access for “street drinkers” to imbibe to extreme, contributing to the declining health and morbidity of people without means to recovery. Not to mention the general unseemliness and enforcement burden of public drinking in the city’s business, tourist and social core. The argument extends to suggest that cutting off access to a drug will curb its abuse or encourage people to seek recovery – and make no mistake; alcohol is our nation’s most popular drug, rivaling only tobacco.

This side of the brain also considers the evidence from similar zones in Seattle and Tacoma, where local statistics indicate a decline in the number of arrests for public drunkenness. The message is that by cutting off the source, we crimp addiction, dependence, criminalization and, by extraction, help end one aggravation to poverty and homelessness. Still, most numbers presented in favor of these zones record police activity, not the status of alcoholism or health or recovery of those affected. In talking with some of our comrades in Seattle, the result was a migration of drinkers to other neighborhoods.

On the other side (call it the other left side), our brain can’t help but bristle at the undercurrent in this law that is trying to legislate away a social ill through economic segregation. This side also understands that alcoholism is one addiction that, in extreme, can kill the afflicted in absence of medication or use. For all intents and purposes, alcoholism is a legalized reality in our houses, condos and apartments across the nation, and if the health of people in this addiction is our primary concern – as it should be – then an alcohol impact zone is a placebo, diverting time and energy from real innovation and systemic solutions to a serious health care problem. In a city in which homeless recovery programs cannot keep pace with the demand and where stable, permanent housing is at a premium — most of it far away from downtown — this proposal seems superficial and biased.

This side of the brain also notes that this time and energy — months of meetings to gain business support — has ended in a foregone mandate from the city that this will be the law, get used to it. The message being that your cooperation, Portland, was not necessary in the first place. But thanks for coming along on the ride.

We hear the words of the workers on the front, that anything that stems the tide of chronic alcoholism among the homeless would be a positive step forward. We want the same end, and we understand how this could fit in, but the pall of economic discrimination will not let this plan rest easy. So even if City Hall has made its decision, the debate goes on.

One response to “SR editorial on booze ban

  1. I don’t know, I was fortunate to hear Sen. Bob Dole speak a few weeks after September 11th and he advised that when Americans make decisions, they should always err on the side of freedom. Otherwise we are in danger of forgetting who we are and what we stand for. We will forget how precious freedom is and dishonor the sacrifices made to win and defend it. I think the problems on our streets are more about limited choices than a lack of regulating choices.

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