by Paul Mero

Utah is a liquor control state. In other words, the state heavily regulates the sale and consumption of liquor. Some states have more stringent regulations in place, including complete prohibitions in some counties within those states, but Utah remains a state that will tell residents and visitors when and where and how they can drink liquor.

Every legislative session there seems to be talk of new bills designed to either loosen these regulations or tighten them. Several years ago, the Legislature created what is now called the Zion Curtain requiring restaurants to separate where drinks are made from where they are served – the central idea being restaurants are not bars and a culture of alcohol should be contained to bar settings only.

Most of you know that not only do I not have a problem with the Zion Curtain, I endorse it wholeheartedly. In fact, I consider an essay I wrote a few years ago defending the Zion Curtain one of the best I’ve ever written. In that essay I go into great detail about the differences between law enforcement and law and order – that is, in the case of liquor laws, maintaining order is more important than trying to keep up with never-ending enforcement. For instance, while I support the new bill to lower the blood alcohol limit in the state, I much prefer liquor control measures designed to isolate a culture of drinking.

I wrote, “In the February 1982 issue of The Atlantic magazine, professors George L.  Kelling and James Q. Wilson authored  ‘Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,’ arguing that while law enforcement is an essential role of police work, maintaining order is its more important traditional role in a free society.  In other words, catching crooks is important but, in a free society, the first line of defense against crime is a healthy community and its citizenry – and police work exists to complement community institutions, not replace them…

Disorder is a precursor to crime; hence, restoring and maintaining order should be our priority. Furthermore, people fear neighborhood disorder more than the threat of actual violent crime in their lives – they fear drunks, panhandlers, roaming youth and simple urban incivilities more than they do the threats of murder, rape or robbery.  And for good reason. Not only is neighborhood disorder a realistic touch point for nearly every citizen, disorder breeds crime.”

I understand why some people don’t like Utah’s liquor laws. I’ve heard all of the complaints. Frankly, there is a never-ending supply of regulations in a liquor control state. So a word to the wise – or at least a word to people who seek to have Utah become a liquor consumption state – while there is an endless supply of regulations, there is not an endless supply of counter measures. Supporters of greater and broader liquor consumption in Utah will never win by dickering at the margins of the debate over a regulation here and there. What opponents of Utah liquor laws need to do is fight over the big idea: Should Utah stay a liquor control state or become a liquor consumption state?

Here’s an example of what I mean. The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association sent out an urgent survey to its members. With another round of fights at the Legislature, this group wants to know from its members if the dickering around the margins is worth it. The association asks, “The bill, as currently contemplated, would remove the ‘Zion Curtain’ but it would come with some associated tradeoffs. Can you review the following items, one by one, and let [us] know if these terms are workable, or if they would impose too great a burden to current operations?” In other words, pick your poison. Honestly, if you have to ask your side that kind of question, you’ve already lost. If your side is trading removal of the Zion Curtain for eight new regulations, equally disruptive, including a tax hike, just quit. How inept can liquor lobbyists be?

The liquor crowd ought to do everyone a favor – throw back a few drinks, work up the courage to put on their big boy pants, and focus on the real debate. Should Utah be a control state or a consumption state? That’s the fight. Until that time, the state will continue to tend bar and tell drinkers when enough is enough. And I’m okay with that.

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