Little to say for myself

Friday, September 02, 2005

What Drinking Laws?

It's a symptom of the debate about the licensing laws that people refer to them as "Drinking Laws". The irony is that the new laws don't relate to drinking at all - they relate only to the selling of drink.

The message to the binge-drinkers out there is that they don't need to be personally responsible for how much they drink, since the "authorities" are doing that for them by restricting (now de-restricting) the time during which they can buy it. They can binge as much as they want, safe in the knowledge that the pub landlord is the only person who'd get into trouble for selling them too much.

Landlords are licensed because they can be, and the licences are relatively easy to police - but thinking you can control drunkenness by licensing the people who sell alcohol is a clumsy idea. It doesn't address the issue. It's like dropping your car keys in a dark alley, but going off to look for them under a street lamp because the visibility's better there. It's easier to control what's going on, but you're looking in the wrong place.

I get that there is the (possibly insurmountable) issue of how to police personal drink consumption, but setting that aside for a moment and just looking at the principles involved, it seems to me much more powerful to place limits, not on the amount of time allowed for the sale of alcohol, nor even on the total amount of alcohol sold, but on the amount of alcohol in the drinker's system when they're out in public. In other words, make the drinker liable for their blood alcohol level, not the pub landlord. Only that way will the punter take responsibility for their consumption.

If there were a law (exactly as for drink-driving) limiting the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream whilst at the controls of a dangerous vehicle in public (in this case the vehicle is a human body, equipped with teeth, fists and boots, and a propensity to wander out into traffic), then the "driver" of that vehicle would be compelled to be responsible about their consumption - just as car-drivers are today.

OK - so on the face of it, it looks impossible to police. You can't bang up every person staggering home after a skinful on a Friday night - Police Stations get overcrowded enough as it is just with the people who cause damage or threat to others through being drunk, without adding to their number the benign and harmless staggerers who just want to find their way home.

However, consider a few things:

  • The streets are so full of drunk people in part because there is no law against it. If it were illegal to be in public (which includes in the pub, as well as on the streets) with a blood alcohol level of more than, say, 160 mg/litre (double that for driving a motor vehicle), then a large proportion of drinkers would control their rate of consumption to stay within the law. There wouldn't be so many drunk people out there.
  • Drunkenness is currently controlled through a combination of licensing laws and arrest for "drunk and disorderly". Imagine controlling hand-gun use in this way. You'd limit gun-shop opening hours, allow people to carry as many guns as they like, and penalise only those gun-owners who actually shoot people. You'd dismiss this idea as crazy, because by the time they've shot someone (or the drunk has thrown the brick through the shop window), it's too late. Taking a direct analogy closer to home, it would be like convicting drunk drivers only if they crash their car or knock down a pedestrian.
  • As it stands, the law against causing criminal damage when drunk isn't powerful, because it penalises people who have already (and perfectly legally) lost personal responsibility for their actions by getting drunk in the first place. I'm surprised they don't all plea for mercy on the grounds of diminished responsibility! It was the getting drunk that caused the damage, and that part isn't properly addressed.
  • The technology and processes already exist (under the drink-driving laws) to arrest and convict people on the basis of blood alcohol level, so no new legal or clinical procedures or hardware need to be developed.
  • On the issue of curtailed personal freedom, there is already acceptance of the preventative principle in drink-driving laws. People accept that their driving judgment can be impaired by alcohol, and they'd also accept that other forms of judgment can be equally impaired - such as crossing roads on foot, accepting lifts from strangers, or controlling their temper in an argument. There are also strong arguments for public health along the lines of the forthcoming public smoking restrictions. A drunk on the streets is as much a public menace as a smoker in the pub.

The main benefit of a law controlling blood-alcohol level, rather than opening hours, is that it wouldn't be an issue for the (I'm guessing) 95% of people who drink in moderation and want to be able to stay out late (as they can in virtually every other country), but whose freedom is curtailed at present due to the antics of a tiny drunken minority. Lifting licensing hours restrictions would still allow people to drink a fair amount, but to stay within the law by drinking at a slower rate, allowing their metabolism to control the alcohol level in their system.

Although it sounds anti-libertarian and "nanny-state" at the outset, such a law would in fact bring new liberty to the lives of the vast majority of people. The liberty to drink socially where and until when they want, and the liberty to walk home safely afterwards.

Modern town and city centres are becoming no-go areas for the moderate or non-drinker because pubs and clubs are (quite legitimately and understandably) catering to those people daft enough to spend a fortune on drink in the few short hours available. You can't sit and talk at a quiet table in town in the evenings, unless you're willing to pay for a meal, because furnishings and sound levels are set for those people who'd rather drink than talk. It's obvious that the streets will be full of drunks if those are the only people attracted into town in the first place. If people restricted their drinking to remain within a law on blood-alcohol level, then landlords would need to offer facilities to people who drink moderately and want a relaxed time of it. They would want to encourage people to stay longer, and put on entertainments like live music into the early hours (as can be found in cities like Madrid). Wouldn't that be great?

People who simply wanted to get off their faces could still do it in the privacy of their own home, where they'd be no problem to anyone.

Just a thought.

posted by Plig | 12:06 |

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