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Getting With the Times: BC Launches A Complete Review of its Archaic Liquor Laws

Carlos Mendes

(Originally Published September 25, 2013 on my BC Beer Law 1.0 blog)

On June 7th the Province announced that it would begin its first review of BC’s liquor laws since 1999 in an effort to modernize a regulatory regime it acknowledges is ‘archaic’ and ‘inefficient.’ The first phase of the review began on August 7th when Richmond MLA John Yap, the newly appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Liquor Policy Reform, sent out thousands of letters to major stakeholders throughout BC, including manufacturers, importers, harm reduction groups, the food and beverage industry, and liquor agency stores. The second phase of the review seeks to engage the broader public in the consultation process, giving average British Columbians an opportunity to speak to their elected representatives on a topic that most of us have pretty strong opinions on. Launched on September 13th, the BC Liquor Policy Review website (located at http://engage.gov.bc.ca/liquorpolicyreview/) gives users numerous ways to give feedback, from e-mailing the Minister directly, to commenting on one of his blog posts and participating in a twitter town hall on September 29th. The review will conclude on October 31st, before Yap submits his report to the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice by November 25th. The Province intends to bring in a new Act next spring.

After numerous rumours of its coming, the Province’s long-overdue review has been welcomed by the craft beer industry and its advocates. As was evidenced with the recent changes to the Act involving tied-house rules and on-site brewery lounges, BC’s liquor laws have too often been updated in an ad-hoc, one-off basis, which has led us to the current labyrinthine system that can be so difficult to navigate. Although instituted after the repeal of prohibition, BC’s current liquor laws have remained grounded in the temperance movement’s equation of alcohol with immorality and social decay, and as a result, control has been centralized in a Provincial regulator, and citizens have been barred from enjoying certain freedoms enjoyed in numerous other Canadian and international jurisdictions. Fortunately, from permitting sales in grocery stores and farmers markets to consumption in parks, everything is currently on the table and under review.

Having canvassed the opinions of several players in the industry, a few issues of concern seem to stand out. As noted above, due to the poor interplay between numerous ad-hoc and out of date regulations, the current regime is very difficult to navigate, and the bureaucratic hurdles to getting licensed are well known. It’s no surprise that so many ‘pubs’ are actually operating with Food-Primary licenses because, much to the frustration of anyone who’s tried to open a pub in BC, it can take an eternity to get a Liquor- Primary license in this province. Indeed, as we saw with on-site lounges, despite the amendment of the Regulations, licensees still have to wait at least 6 months to get an endorsement on their Manufacturer Licenses (which is why we still don’t have any brewery lounges in Vancouver). As someone who has helped clients navigate numerous regulatory regimes in various jurisdictions, I can attest to the difficulties of working within the current regulatory regime in BC. Clearly, the Province needs to make it easier to open and run breweries and pubs, and for manufacturers to distribute their products and sell directly to customers. Cutting red tape, reducing the time it takes to get licensed, and making the regulatory regime user-friendly would all go a long way to improving the current regime.

Another area of concern is distribution. Being centralized in the Liquor Distribution Branch, small producers can often have a difficult time getting their products into the hands of local consumers. One update to the current distribution model that, much to my delight, seems to have gained a lot of traction is farmers markets. As a cook and a foodie, I frequently visit my local farmers market at Trout Lake with my family. It’s always a pleasure to pick up the freshest produce, meet the farmers who grow my food, and expose my kids to something that you just don’t get at a big box grocery store. Why not fill up your growler or enjoy a pint on the grass while you’re picking up your heirloom tomatoes and homemade kimchi? While not a farmers market, the Saturday Craft Market in Portland gets it just right. When I was there this past April, Rogue had a stand set up where you could fill up your growler or have a glass of Dead Guy Ale. Combined with an excellent meal from one of the multiple food trucks on site, it was a great way to enjoy a sunny spring afternoon with some friends. Hopefully, this experience will soon be coming to BC.

Keeping with distribution, another issue that has generated a lot of feedback is liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores. On a recent visit to Seattle, I was amazed to find a better craft beer selection in the local gas station than you can often find in smaller government stores in BC. Common throughout Europe and parts of the US and Canada, selling beer and wine in corner and grocery stores provides far greater choice and convenience for consumers, and acknowledges that both products can be part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle if consumed in moderation by responsible adults (who make up the vast majority of alcohol consumers). While my particular tastes would mean that I would likely keep getting my beer from breweries, it would still be nice to be able to walk into my local convenience store and pick up a bomber or a six pack when in a pinch. Giving smaller producers another commercial outlet in their local communities would also be really beneficial to their growth, and with the increasing commercial focus on local products, it’s not hard to imagine bombers of 33 Acres or Brassneck on sale at the Union Market or the McGill Grocery alongside freshly baked goods, milk and soda pop.
 

Another issue that has generated a fair amount of debate is public consumption. A few weeks back I found myself with some friends down at English Bay enjoying the last vestiges of summer by having a picnic dinner with our families. Looking around at all of the other families doing the same thing, it just seemed silly how many of us were drinking wine and beer out of opaque plastic cups, trying to hide a part of our meal like we were engaged in some kind of subversive act. Clearly, it’s time for the Province to move past the outdated moral underpinnings of our liquor laws and let responsible adults consume alcohol responsibly. Even if the Province were to permit broader public consumption, with the right amendments to local bylaws, (such as imposing restrictions on where and when alcohol could be consumed), it would be relatively simple for municipalities to keep public consumption in check and remain mindful of important harm reduction concerns.

Let’s hope that the first review of our liquor laws in more than a decade can take our province into the 21st century and encourage growth in the industry, while also balancing a respect for individual adult consumers with harm reduction. Don’t forget to make your voice heard, and I’ll give my thoughts on Minister Yap’s report once it’s made public.