Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison hosts town hall on street alcohol consumption

Yukun Zhang/Staff

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Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison held a town hall Thursday night to address community members’ concerns about the sale of high-alcohol-content beverages in Berkeley.

The town hall featured a panel of speakers including Harrison; Friedner Wittman, a former campus researcher; Tom Gorham, program director of the Options Recovery Services, which focuses on substance-abuse treatment; and John Caner, a member of the Downtown Berkeley Association. The panel discussed the dangers of the current sale and consumption of fortified alcohol — drinks to which more alcohol is added during the fermentation process, bringing the concentration up to 17-20 percent. At the meeting, the speakers focused on the consumption of fortified alcohol on the streets, particularly by minors and the homeless community in District 4.

Harrison said she organized the town hall because some members of her district had expressed concern about public alcohol consumption and its effect on public safety, particularly in the area surrounding Berkeley High School.

“We have (had) a lot of people contact us,” Harrison said. “The folks in this room are currently facing a crisis. … We need to focus on the immediate problem and find possible solutions for the short term as well as the long term.”

Several speakers at the town hall said they were concerned that the marketing of “alcopops,” which are fortified drinks that contain a particularly high sugar content, was encouraging alcoholic consumption among minors. Alcopops, according to Harrison, are taxed at the same rate as beer despite containing distilled spirits, and they can cost as little as $2.69.

Gorham, who works with minors in the criminal justice system, compared the advertising of alcopops to the marketing of cigarettes to minors.

“(The producers of alcopops) target new customers much like Big Tobacco did,” Gorham said. “This is a repeat of that.”

To combat the consumption of alcohol by minors, Harrison said she hoped to persuade retailers near BHS to stop selling alcopops and alcohol in general. Although the stores cannot be legally prohibited from doing so, Harrison proposed a joint effort with the Berkeley Unified School District board to speak with local businesses about this proposal.

Harrison suggested holding public nuisance abatement hearings conducted by the Zoning Adjustments Board if a retailer fails to comply with laws against “disturbances of the peace,” such as illegal drug use. She also proposed holding retailers accountable with the deemed-approved ordinance, which, if violated, can result in the revocation of a retailer’s license.

The town hall also discussed levying “business fees” for retailers to fund prevention programs.

Holly Scheider, commissioner of the Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Product Panel of Experts Commission, who attended the meeting, suggested exploring policy proposals such as preventing the sale of single-can beverages. According to Scheider, limiting the sale of single alcoholic drinks helps reduce underaged consumption.

But Wittman cautioned the panel against hasty action and instead urged the community to use available data to study alcohol incidences to gain a better picture of the issue. He added that he believes street drinking is “highly connected” to other social issues, such as affordable housing.

“It’s important that if you see a nail, you don’t start hitting it with a hammer,” Wittman said. “We are looking at a systematic and ecological problem.”

Contact Sophia Brown-Heidenreich at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sophiabrownh.