A different approach to liquor laws: debate at city council

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Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo. The downtown Yellowknife liquor store.

City council entered a fulsome debate Monday on the possibility of restricting liquor store hours in Yellowknife to reduce alcohol-related harm.

“It’s been raised in discussion when we talk about the downtown about moving the liquor store or having restrictions on quantities you can purchase,” said Mayor Rebecca Alty during the June 24 committee meeting.

The mayor and council were discussing whether the city should lobby the NWT government to amend the Northwest Territories Liquor Act.

Citing research from a University of Victoria study – which found the NWT has the second highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita in Canada – Alty suggested Yellowknife follow Fort Simpson’s example by limiting liquor store hours.

This would reduce excessive alcohol consumption and related harms, said Alty who noted the NWT is “second to last when it comes to implementing best practices.”

According to the study, there are two main methods to reducing harm through policy: increasing taxes on alcohol, as high costs reduce consumption, and physical limitations such as reducing store hours.

“Their research has shown that restricting availability for two or more hours were shown to efficiently decrease alcohol related harms,” said Alty.

The report suggests that liquor stores shouldn’t be open before 11 a.m. and should not stay open after 8 p.m.

The mayor recommended council work with the GNWT to enact policies that align with the research.

Councillors, however, were united in their opposition to the idea of restricting liquor store hours in Yellowknife.

Coun. Steven Payne went so far as to call the idea “asinine.”

“What’s the next step? Are we going to restrict McDonald’s because it makes people overweight and unhealthy?” he asked. “This is all about choice and we live in a free country where we’re able to make those choices.”

Coun. Niels Konge said he did “not agree with any of the comments made” by the mayor.

“I find it interesting that the gold standard for this is basically reduction,” said Konge. “I assume then the platinum standard for this would be prohibition and we’ve been there and done that, it doesn’t work.”

Konge noted the downtown liquor store’s 11 a.m. opening coincides with the appearance of a number of visibly intoxicated people in the city centre.

“If we want to reduce that heavy intoxication at a certain time of day, we would actually open the liquor store 24 hours a day,” he reasoned. “There would be access to the alcohol 24 hours a day and people who have addiction issues would be able to get it whenever as opposed to ten of them showing up all at the same time and drinking hard for the same hour and a half.”

Konge said 24-hour liquor stores are not a viable option but said longer store hours or allowing liquor sales on Sunday would reduce alcohol-related disturbances downtown.

“The same people would still be getting intoxicated, but there would be less of them at the same time and it would make the problem not as bad,” said Konge.

Coun. Robin Williams said he would not support changes to the Liquor Act.

“I certainly don’t think adding another layer of regulation on top of the Liquor Act is going to fix the situation,” he said.

Neither did councillors Stacie Smith and Cynthia Mufandaedza who feared that more regulation would produce an increase in bootlegging.

Economic development

A number of councillors said relaxing liquor restrictions could be a way to increase economic development.

Coun. Julian Morse said Yellowknife should consider specific policies and guidelines for selling liquor, beer and wine in separate stores within grocery stores

“I am tentatively supportive of looking into this, but I just want to be sure we’re not needlessly inconveniencing people,” said Morse. “If we’re going to consider changing the Liquor Act, maybe we should look into the idea of beer and wine stores as well.”

Williams and Payne said they supported the loosening of restrictions for businesses.

“If the entrepreneurial spirit was allowed to grow we could have some higher-end liquor stores, we could have some boutique places that focus on things like wines and take some of that negative stigma off of it,” said Williams.

Payne said he “loved” the idea of being able to serve someone a beer at his business – Ragged Ass Barbers – or for someone to get a glass of wine at a salon.

“We don’t allow people to do that,” said Payne. “(Governments) stand in the way. We tell people you can do this and can’t do that. It was only in the past few years we allowed bars to open on certain Sundays. We need to open it up for people to get the most out of their business.”