The Folly of Needless Alcohol Laws

by Conor Friedersdorf

In Orange County, California, as in many American communities, the approach planners take to bars is as follows: they're generally located in close proximity to one another, so that on a weekend night, bar goers congregate around Main Street in Huntington Beach, the pier in Newport Beach, the Irvine Spectrum, and Newport Boulevard and 17th Street in Costa Mesa, among other spots. This arrangement means that most neighborhoods are free of bars, something that a lot of homeowners appreciate. There are, however, drawbacks.

When all the bars are next to one another, and the state mandates that no alcohol can be sold after 2 am, the result is that a lot of people who've rushed to finish their last drink stumble onto the same street at the same time. Sometimes fights ensue. There is always noise. Folks who were kicked out before having a chance to use the restroom are known to substitute nearby alleys. Almost all of these patrons drove to the bar since few people live close enough to walk to one. Being in an entertainment district, space is at a premium, and regulations often prohibit overnight parking, so a lot of people wind up driving home despite blood alcohol levels that would get them a DUI.

The status quo seems insane to me. Wouldn't it be better to put bars within walking distance of where people live, allow overnight parking, and permit them to close whenever they want, so that a sudden congregation of drunk people on the street would never occur? Traveling the nation, I've found alcohol laws outside of California to be even worse. In New York, supermarkets aren't allowed to sell liquor. What possible reason could there be for this? Were members of the New York Legislature to tour California, they'd see that supermarkets are the most responsible sellers of alcohol, and that high school kids with fake ideas always seek out small liquor stores.

Away from the coasts, in the part of America that is alleged to prize freedom, the alcohol laws are even worse. A friend of mine in Birmingham, Alabama, spent years fighting a cap on the alcohol content of beer that could be sold in the state because he likes IPAs that taste like hops, but the limit was set so low that all you could get were mass market brands like Budweiser. (The effort had a significant success, but container size remains an obstacle.) On a road trip across the south I passed through dry counties, always with a cluster of liquor stores and bars across the county line, and doubtless some extra drunk driving too.

In Europe the alcohol laws are generally far more liberal. I miss that. On nice nights in Seville, I'd buy a liter of Cruzcampo beer, situate myself in a picturesque plaza or along the bank of the Guadalquivir River, and cultivate enjoyment of everyday moments. On Bastille Day in Paris, I once stood with friends atop a quay on the Seine, swigging wine from a plastic jug as fireworks burst overhead. It vexes me that on the Fourth of July, most public firework shows prohibit adults from consuming an alcoholic beverage, and to everyone who thinks it would be anarchy if America allowed drinking outdoors, I can only say that I've by now been to places that lacked every regulation practiced here. By and large, their attitudes toward alcohol were healthier than ours, and the associated problems no greater.

That the police are permitted to ticket those who are drunk in public doesn't bother me in principle, so long as those fined are bothering someone. Neither do I object to anti-drunk driving efforts, nor harsh penalties for transgressing against that law. But it offends my notion of the freedom due every man and woman that I cannot sip a single cold beer or craft cocktail as I walk down the beach with my girlfriend, enjoying the West Coast sunset.

These small laws are costing me everyday pleasures and fond memories.

A toast to their repeal.