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Friday, February 5, 2010

City Wants to Ban Malt Liquor Sales Downtown

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 1:35 PM

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Three Portland Police officers and a city outreach worker sat at a long table in the Portland Building last night behind cans of Joose, MAX and Steel Reserve. A city attempt to curb street drinking and public inebriation downtown could soon lead to a ban on sales of these cheap, strong types of booze in Old Town, the Pearl District and downtown.

Theresa Marchetti of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement says that according to city stats, the downtown area within the I-405 loop is responsible for 53 percent of arrests for public intoxication. "This is a pretty compelling problem in a pretty concentrated area," says Marchetti. To combat public boozery, the police and city want all of the central city's 68 bodegas, grocery stores and other vendors of singles and six-packs to join an association dubbed "VIBRANT PDX", or "Volunteering as Businesses to Reduce Alcohol-related Nuisances Together." As members of the group, the businesses would agree not to sell:

• Single containers of 12 or 16 ounce beer
• Boxed wine or wine over two liters per container
• Any malt liquor which is 5.57 percent alcohol or wine over 13.5 percent alcohol by volume.
• Single containers of beer or hard cider over 22 ounces, unless they cost more than 22 cents an ounce.

Oregon craft microbrews, significantly, are exempted from the ban. "The intent is to restrict beverages known to be favored by street drinkers," says Marchetti. If the voluntary ban is not effective, Marchetti says the city would consider pushing to make it mandatory.

The roughly 20 downtown small business owners who turned up to last night's meeting were highly critical of the plan. "I think they're really addressing the symptom rather than the problem," said a female corner-store owner who would not give her name for fear of stirring up up trouble. "This is where homeless people and people who are poor get their free food, it's where they get their services, it's where their bed is and it's where they buy their drinks. It's not the stores' fault these people live down here."

Numerous store owners at last night's meeting were concerned that the ban would cut their sales in already hard times. Doug Peterson, who successfully fought off city closure last year, says his store does not sell to street drinkers, but the across-the-board ban would hurt his store. Several owners agreed that 16 ounce beers are among their top-selling items.

Plaid Pantry president Chris Girard, who owns stores in both Portland and Seattle, says that when Seattle instituted a similar malt liquor ban a decade ago, his sales did not take a significant hit. "We don't sell to street drinkers, so it didn't affect our sales. But a ban like this only works if everyone gets on board," says Girard.

After Seattle banned sales of potent and inexpensive booze in its downtown core, The Stranger noted, "It was an innovative piece of public policy that has unfortunately been undermined by a citywide system of buses and sidewalks. Resourceful drunks have migrated out of Pioneer Square and up to Capitol Hill, where they can get just as bombed on Night Train Express as they did a half-mile away. "

Street Roots director Israel Bayer agrees that the proposed ban would be a "cosmetic approach." "It more or less says to Portlanders: if you have money, you're free and clear... it doesn't take a rocket scientist for a person to figure out if you can't buy Mad Dog or potent booze at the corner store, than you can go to a liquor store and buy a $5 bottle whiskey or Everclear," says Bayer.

Portland police officer Mike Boyer responded to similar criticism at the meeting saying he is optimistic that banning sales of cheap, strong drinks at corner stores could cut public intoxication downtown. "This problem is involved with much larger issues, but this one small piece of the puzzle," says Boyer.

Two more meetings are coming up on the proposed ban. Info here.

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