Columns » Warwick Sabin

Our drinking problem

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On Sept. 23, the University of Arkansas faxed a press release that was good for a laugh in the newsroom. Titled "Reminders for Razorback fans attending football games on the university campus," the advisory warned against ticket scalping before it reached the punchline: "Additionally, possession and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages in public areas on the UA campus and at the football stadium are prohibited by state law and university policy. Violators are subject to arrest." If you attended the game against Texas on Sept. 11, you understand why this is funny. The parking lots surrounding Razorback Stadium comprised the biggest crime scene in Arkansas, filled as they were with tailgaters possessing and/or consuming alcohol. Lt. Gary Crain, the University Police spokesman, confirmed the policy and sent along a log of arrests made that day. Most were for public intoxication, but none was for merely possessing and/or consuming alcohol. He said some people were confronted by officers and forced to discard their drinks, but the vast majority of fans were left alone. And what about the luxury skyboxes inside the stadium, where occupants are known to imbibe with impunity? Crain said that those areas are considered "leased private property," and therefore are not subject to campus rules. So here we have a case of selective enforcement and curious exception, which basically describes the approach to alcohol policy throughout the state. Arkansas has 32 "wet" counties, where the retail sale and manufacture of beer and liquor is legal, and 43 "dry" counties, where it is not. Of course, in a dry county, certain establishments may secure a private club permit to serve drinks. And within wet counties, some towns may decide to be dry, or they may declare themselves wet for beer only. There is not much of a moral lesson to be derived from these confusing and convoluted statutes. If alcohol is so poisonous to the human character, why even allow it in a private club? And does a person get any less drunk from beer than from liquor? All good law is based in universal tenets of morality. We agree that killing and stealing is wrong, so we make those acts criminal in our legal code. However, drinking a beer or a glass of wine is not widely considered immoral. The irresponsible or excessive use of alcohol can be a contributing factor in a lapse of moral judgment, but that is not reason enough to ban the substance. Eating high-fat or sugary foods can lead to gluttony and sloth, but blame for that rests with the individual, not the pork rind. It would be one thing if the only people subject to a narrow moral opinion were the people who held it. However, cities like Conway and Jonesboro - major population centers and university towns in the middle of dry counties - are constrained by old-fashioned liquor laws. An economic development study commissioned by Conway's business leadership cited the lack of opportunities to get a drink there as the single biggest impediment to growth. Companies do not want to locate in an area that seems backward or unprogressive, because it is difficult to recruit top employees to live there. For further evidence, talk to department heads at Hendrix, the University of Central Arkansas, and Arkansas State University, who have to explain the meaning of "dry county" to talented prospective professors. Those who say that liquor laws are rightfully determined by local populations fail to mention that the democratic process is rigged against any effort to make a dry county wet. Before citizens can vote on the proposal, petitioners must sign up 38 percent of registered voters in the county - an outrageous and impossible threshold. Consider, for instance, that only 1,000 signatures are necessary to put a presidential candidate on the state ballot, which is less than one-tenth of one percent of the registered voters in Arkansas. A local population certainly has every right to decide what it will tolerate in its community. However, on this issue there is no real opportunity to challenge the status quo, leaving people to go around the laws by creating private clubs and smuggling cases of contraband across county lines. The dry counties don't really avoid the bad effects of alcohol, they just deny themselves the benefits. The most honest and practical solution is to make it easier for wet/dry ballot questions to be put to a straight vote in each county. Only then will we know whether a majority of people think it is a bad thing to be able to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at a restaurant. If the sea of tailgaters at the Texas game is any indication (and word is that a can or two of beer was tipped in Fayetteville before the Alabama game, too), it's easy to understand why the opposition does not want to allow a fair vote.

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