In the debate about Walnut Creek’s downtown bar scene, remember that alcohol is a drug

Yes, that’s right, alcohol is a drug, the most widely used in the United States. 
Whether it’s dressed up as glass of fine red wine, a boutique brew or an artistically designed cocktail, drinks containing alcohol alter mind and mood and play with some of the same pleasure-producing neurotransmitters affected by opioid pain killers, heroin, cocaine and marijuana. 

That means that downtown establishments serving alcohol are dispensing a drug.  

I know, I know. I’m spoiling everyone’s fun. People don’t like to equate alcohol with drugs because, well, alcohol is different, right? Alcohol isn’t dirty – not like street drugs. It is associated with consumers who are sophisticated, educated and affluent, with people who are good, responsible citizens. 

A glass of wine with a meal? A martini before dinner? Is there anything wrong with that?
No. Indeed, the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages has a rich tradition in cultures around the world, going back to the world’s early civilizations. It plays a central role in religious and social rituals, and in the appreciation of good food and of life itself.  Scientific research also presents strong evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol provides of range of health benefits.

A lot of things I’ve just written about alcohol are true. But that doesn’t change the fact that alcohol is a drug. 

As for alcohol not being dirty? Alcohol actually causes more harm to individuals, families and societies worldwide than crack cocaine, heroin and other legal and illegal drugs, according to a 2010 study published by the British medical journal The Lancet. 

About two-thirds of American adults reporting drinking alcohol to various degrees. Anywhere from 15 to 17 million of those are alcoholics or have drinking problems. Thirty-four percent of people over the age of 12 are alcoholics or engage in what public health officials call risky drinking. Excessive alcohol use increases people’s risk for cancer and liver and brain damage. 

Abuse and addiction to alcohol has devastating consequences for people around the drinker. A new studysays 7.1 million children under 18 live with parents with “an alcohol use disorder.” America’s “drinking problem,” as one publication put it, costs about $225 billion a year in medical expenses, crime and lost productivity.

Where Walnut Creek’s downtown night life is concerned, alcohol-impaired drivers were involved in 1 in 3 traffic related deaths in 2009, resulting in 11,000 deaths. About 40 percent of violent crimes committed in the United States involved alcohol. Two-thirds of victims who suffered violence by “intimate” partners reported that alcohol had been a factor. 

The city is drafting an ordinance that would tie regulation of alcohol-serving establishments to public health and safety, rather than to land use. Treating the regulation of downtown’s alcohol serving establishment as a health and safety issue is a good step. By the way, the statistics cited above come from agencies involved in public health and safety: the U.S. Department of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration.

The city wants more authority to deal with problem bars, Mayor Bob Simmons told the Contra Costa Times. The owners of downtown’s drug dispensaries – er,  bars – worry that additional laws would cut into their hours for alcohol service and cost them money and possibly their businesses.
In a letter to the city, the 15 members of the newly formed  Walnut Creek Hospitality Group said they are ready to go to court to fight against any new regulations that would hurt their livelihoods, according to the Times. 

Some residents would respond to bar owners’ concerns: “Cry me a river.” In an astute op-ed column for the Times, City Council member Kristina Lawson said that“Walnut Creek is a successful, thriving, family-focused community. But with success brings great responsibility.”

So yes, Walnut Creek has a thriving nightlife. A lot of that has to do with the more than 100 businesses in the downtown core area that are licensed to serve alcohol. Between midnight and 2 a.m., as many as 1500 people are at bars still open downtown, according to a May 2009 city staff report. 

I am no prohibitionist who wants the city to close up at 10 p.m  I understand people wanting to get together with friends for drinks.  I’ve been known to enjoy that pastime myself.  I appreciate the way a drink can be relaxing and intoxicating.  Of course, one might get a similar sedative effect from taking a Valium or Xanax, but a glass of nice wine tastes better and goes better with dinner.

Alcohol is the drug of choice of all the people coming into downtown to drink. Having lots of people downtown on weekend nights, hanging out in bars or moving from one to another, all getting buzzed or drunk, increases the likelihood of trouble  — as we’ve seen in a series of brawls breaking out on weekend nights over the past few months. 

I can understand that some city leaders have concerns about fairness when it comes to deciding how late a bar can stay open. They don’t want to hurt the livelihood of a small business owner who says he is just providing a venue for people to relax and enjoy themselves.

But as Lawson said, the laws in this city “need to be firmly on the side of our residents, visitors and public safety officers — not on the side of a small minority of businesses who cannot properly regulate and restrain their behavior and the behavior of their patrons.” 

These business owners  need to recognize that they are peddling a product that carries consequences for public health and safety.  With its new ordinance and with increasing police patrols on weekend nights, the city is showing that it finally is recognizing this reality as well.

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