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Lessons from Prohibition

I recently watched Ken Burns’ excellent PBS documentary on Prohibition in the U.S., which included more than a few references to Canada and BC (which is where much of the American illegal booze flowed from). There are some obvious lessons from history, some of which are highly relevant for efforts to modernize BC’s current wine regulatory system which to a large extent is still reflective of post-prohibition thinking.

Lesson 1: Don’t Penalize Everyone if a Small Group Has a Problem. This was really the heart of the problem with prohibition. In order to solve the drinking problems of a minority of society, they punished everyone by banning alcohol entirely. This was obviously a terrible policy because the majority refused to abide by a law which they rightly viewed as unfair. Unfortunately, some of BC’s current liquor policies still have this attitude. One example: in order to supposedly discourage alcoholism and overconsumption, we tax everyone at excessive levels, including those who are drinking responsibly and moderately. As a result, big spenders ignore the law and buy their wine in Alberta.

Lesson 2: All Alcohol Consumption is NOT the Same. Much to the dismay of wineries and wine drinkers, the prohibition laws treated all alcohol exactly the same: as inherently evil. The laws completely ignored that wine is an agricultural product that has been part of civilized meals for thousands of years. They made no distinction between a jug of bargain basement vodka and a nice bottle of wine drunk with dinner. Most of BC’s regulatory system still inherits this thinking making almost no distinction between types of alcohol or manner of use. For example, a fine bottle of wine served with a meal in an upscale restaurant is basically subject to exactly the same tax and regulatory rules as a tequila shooter served in a college bar.

Lesson 3: If the Law is Not Being Respected Then Fix the Law Rather Than Stepping Up Enforcement. The ultimate failure of the prohibition advocates was that they steadfastly refused to compromise. Even in the face of massive disregard for the prohibition laws, they called for greater enforcement rather than compromising and creating more sensible policy that had a greater chance of being respected. We still have this problem. For example, some of Canada’s liquor boards are still opposed to the modernization of Canada’s foolish and unenforceable interprovincial wine shipping restrictions – they actually threatened BC wineries with criminal sanctions rather than working to create a more sensible law.

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