The social impacts of I-1183

A customer buys alcohol at a state-run liquor store Wednesday morning in Bremerton.  - Greg Skinner
A customer buys alcohol at a state-run liquor store Wednesday morning in Bremerton.
— image credit: Greg Skinner

Come June, people will be able to pick up a bottle of Bacardi along with their eggs and milk.

Walmart, Safeway, and Costco are among the box stores that have tentative plans to stock hard liquor on their shelves as a result of Initiative 1183, which passed with an overwhelming 65 percent support in Kitsap County.

The iniative's success ended the state's liquor monopoly and opened stores of 10,000 square feet or more to licensed liquor sales.

Now, those same voters are starting to wonder what impact the law may have on the community.

"I love 1183! For me it's awesome because I can buy liquor whenever I want at those 24 hour grocery stores. But then I realize that it's also easier for the youngins' to get to it, and that's not cool. But what are you going to do right? I guess we'll have to wait and see," said Brittney Carlson, a resident of Bremerton.

Stacey Rhodes of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving said that while the organization cannot take a political stance on how the state regulates their alcohol sales, the Kitsap chapter urges community members to be vigilant and for vendors to set up stringent rules on the sale of alcohol to minors.

"We had much higher no-sales-to-minors numbers than anywhere in the country when alcohol sales were under the state," said Brian Smith, communications director of the Washington State liquor control board.

Smith explained that state liquor stores could be kept at arm's length when it came to no-sale-to-minors compliance rates. The enforcement wing of their organization would do routine sting operations on state run liquor stores, with undercover assistants busting clerks who weren't following the letter of the law.

According to Smith, state employees set this as the utmost priority because it was clear that "their jobs depended on it."

The compliance rate for state run liquor stores was 94 percent at the end of this fiscal year while the private sector's compliance rate was only 77 percent, according to Washington state liquor board statistics.

"It's a much broader pool now. We'll be issuing a wide range of licenses, nightclubs, bars, grocers, you don't know who are you are dealing with. Some will take it very seriously, others are probably more lax. It's selling alcohol. That's money," said Smith.

Mary Segawa, alcohol awareness manager for the liquor board, reported that she has received many emails since the initiative passed from coalitions in Olympia and Kitsap county who are worried about the social impact. Her advice to them is one of community education as well as encouraging citizens to get involved in drafting local ordinances.

"Now we're in the mode of 'ok, it's happened, now how can we reduce the social impact?' Studies have shown that drinking will increase when access increases, it's just common sense. We will be supporting communities who are trying to minimize the impact of 1183, let them know what kinds of options they may have in public comments for the rule making process, understanding options they may have in terms of local ordinances if they want to go that route," said Segawa.

The studies that Segawa referred to is the U.S. Center for Disease Control task force finding published in February of this year which recommends against privatization of alcohol sales.

According to the CDC study, "Increased alcohol outlet density is also associated with increases in social harms, including interpersonal violence and vandalism. Privatization may be associated with increased alcohol advertising, increases in the number of brands sold, and more lax enforcement of sales regulations, including enforcement of the minimum legal drinking age."

However, Deputy Sheriff Scott Wilson of the Silverdale sheriff's department believes that there are elements of the new liquor law that will limit vendors. One point is the 10,000 square foot minimum size for obtaining liquor licenses.

"I don't think that you'll see a rampant number of liquor stores opening up," said Wilson.

Wilson explained that there are currently laws in place to prevent sale of alcohol to minors. Most stores have video surveillance and clerks not following the law will be subject to a misdemeanor with up to 90 days in jail and a $1000 fine. Additionally, Wilson believes that many retail establishments will monitor themselves.

"Liquor sales will be a source of revenue for grocery stores and marts, most establishments will not want to jeopardize their liquor license anyway," said Wilson.

Chris Finnegan, assistant manager of Safeway in Silverdale, explained that there is currently a training program with their sales of beer and wine.

"Each checker goes through a training course, we have follow up courses. Liquor stings from the state happen now for beer, wine, and tobacco, on no set schedule, there's no rhyme or reason to when they come and check us out, and I'm sure will continue to happen. Although, liquor will bring some different challenges to that, I'm sure," said Finnegan.

Wilson said that the sheriff's department and the state will continue to work together on the enforcement side even with sales going to the private sector. However, there is no way to tell how much manpower they will need come June.

"We are preparing for it, yes, but we can't position an officer at every grocery store. That would be impossible to enforce," said Wilson.

Both the state and law enforcement officials are feeling the strain on resources. According to spokespeople in both departments, the new liquor law is doing nothing to help.

"Our manning has gone down dramatically in patrol, so we have to focus on what's important now. There are issues on the street, and sometimes we just don't have the assets to spare. Detectives may have to jump in to enforce. As always, it's a budget-driven issue," said Wilson.

"There is no money in the initiative to hire more enforcement officers. We may want to seek that type of support in the state budget if the need arises with the new licensees," said Smith.

For many in the community, it is a waiting game to see what social impact the new liquor law will have in June.

"We can't regulate everything now, so now we need to regulate in order to reduce adverse impacts," said Segawa.


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