Campus students play vital role in upholding alcohol policy

Isabelle Doerschlag/Staff

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On Oct. 5, Councilmember Kate Harrison held a town hall meeting on a pressing topic: What can the city of Berkeley do to reduce troublesome drinking in Downtown Berkeley, which she defined as public drinking by homeless people and access to alcohol by underaged students from Berkeley High? I served as a panelist to explore the city’s policy options to prevent or reduce the problem drinking.   

I suggested the city strengthen its community-oriented approach called “local control.” This approach uses planning and zoning ordinances to restrict high-risk settings for alcohol availability and holds owners/managers to a high standard in commercial settings where alcohol is sold. Why this approach? Imagine the well-known image of “faces or vases” that depicts silhouette profiles of two faces looking toward each other. The two faces form an object between them that looks like a vase. The viewer can perceive either the faces or the vase – or all three objects together.   

Most people think of alcohol policy – whether, when, where and how to drink – as a matter for just one “face” or as a personal decision about drinking. Alcohol policy can also be viewed as decisions about drinking made by the two faces choosing among themselves when how to drink – a group decision such as roommates arranging a house party. There is also a third level of decision: the “vase” or community setting is a vessel that shapes choices about drinking behavior at the first two levels. The shape of the setting and circumstances, the container of where and how drinking takes place, is a powerful predictor of drinking experiences (and related problems).   

Choices about drinking in community settings are shaped by longstanding norms, customs and history. These choices are moderated (controlled) by the state of California, the city and the owners/managers of the settings. The state imposes controls through the ABC Act (California Alcoholic Beverage Control Department). The city imposes local control through its planning and zoning ordinances (city ordinances control the number, location, design and operation of retail alcohol outlets licensed by the State ABC). Property owners exert control through lease policies and house rules for alcohol use.  

I suggested this approach because the city can design local control ordinances for retail alcohol outlets to protect public health and safety. The city can require owners/managers to operate according to use-permits that provide this protection.

Effective community management and control of these settings prevents alcohol problems among high-risk groups in the community. The city of Berkeley and the campus have relatively good controls regarding alcohol at public settings and public events (drinking is not allowed in public without a special permit), and the city enforces standards regarding alcohol management at on-sales outlets (bars, restaurants). But the city could do more to manage off-sale outlets (liquor stores, convenience stores) in high-risk areas such as Downtown Berkeley with a high number of street-goers. For example, the city could limit the number of off-sale licenses and could require additional operating conditions for outlet operators. Conditions include training clerks to deny sales to inebriates and underaged youth; sequestering alcohol products in a separate area of the store; limiting advertising and promotion activities; limiting certain types of alcohol and restricting certain container sizes to discourage binge drinking; and posting security staff to discourage loitering and alcohol theft. The city could also step up enforcement of laws against drinking in public.

Harrison opened the Oct. 5 meeting with a solution already in mind. She called for voluntary restrictions on sales of high-strength alcohol at off-sales outlets in the Downtown area to prevent open-air binge-drinking (one of the local control measures mentioned above). She proposed to disallow “binge in a can” drinks that can be consumed entirely in a single serving: Forty-ounce malt liquor and alcohol energy drinks which combine a shot of caffeine with about four shots of alcohol in one compact container.

I commented that this was a possible starting point for prevention efforts, but there were two big questions. First, why not pass a full range of local zoning controls for on-sales alcohol outlets, rather than just this one measure? Second, how does this help solve the larger system problem of appropriate housing related to health and social services for homeless people with severe alcohol-drug problems? This campaign could divert action on core issues that drive street-drinking and youth access.

I also had several smaller questions related to first big question. Why not make the controls mandatory for the retailers rather than voluntary (voluntary bans do not have a good track record)? Is this example from another community really a problem among Berkeley’s homeless and youths? What will keep drinkers from switching to alternative beverages, which often happens to such campaigns? How will this policy be implemented and sustained?

Harrison’s highly limited approach seems insufficient to the task at hand. She offered a gesture— “ready, fire, aim” —rather than an exercise in outcome-oriented logic-model thinking that would dig into the root causes and wrestle with major system-problems. The city could adopt a comprehensive approach that provides full-service local control for alcohol availability and development of appropriate housing specifically for homeless people whose primary problems involve alcohol/drug abuse and addiction. But at this meeting Harrison deferred discussion of the connection between housing for the homeless and street drinking to a later time.

As the meeting ended it was not clear what would happen next to follow up. Three interim conclusions guide actions UC Berkeley students can take: 

  1. The city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley both use local control to bolster preventive management of the community’s alcohol availability environment. Both jurisdictions have sound nominal policies to create an alcohol-safe every-day environment, but they also need to follow up with diligent administration.  
  2. Lax implementation of alcohol oversight policy leads to trouble. Constant oversight is necessary to maintain local control since drinking and drug-use will continue. Alcohol problems at retail outlets became magnets for police problems and community complaints. With prodding from the city, the retailer needs to prevent problems and catch them before they get out of hand.
  3. Local officials view community alcohol issues as squeaky wheels. The loudest squeaks get the most attention from city staff. The squeaks (opposing demands) come from constituents seeking safe and healthy settings (residents, neighbors, students, service providers) and from commercial interests (the alcohol industry and developers). Prevention policy advocates make their case in this context.

Students can play vital roles in the “Local Control” policy process. Students can support local control policies both generally and in response to issues at a given address. Students can act at three levels of involvement as individual persons, as members of a group, and as participants in community action coalitions to protect health and safety:     

As individuals, each student is personally responsible for his/her behavior. Each one must recognize oncoming threats, make wise
choices and choose whether to participate in managing alcohol and other drug (AOD) risk settings that directly affect them.

As members of a group, students should set rules for their group-drinking behavior, including outlines for time, place, setting and conduct. The group also decides whether and how to participate in managing AOD risk settings the group encounters in the surrounding community.

As participants in community coalitions managing AOD risk settings, students need to work with community allies — neighbors, friends, service providers — to engage in the community management process. Join together to assess the issues: What are the problems? What is the AOD policy? Who’s responsible? (everyone, starting with owner/managers of the risk setting).

Don’t wait for someone else to step up. At personal and group levels, students can do a much better job of checking and helping people who need help getting through a bad drinking episode, especially their peers. At the coalition level, think what you can accomplish working together (think of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, 1964). Community is powerful: An organized group with specific changes in mind will be most effective. The same thinking applies to an out-of- control setting for drinking and partying. Take action by going to the house manager, landlord, and the city (call the police, file a nuisance complaint, contact your city council member). Notify the UC Berkeley off-campus housing office as well.

If you don’t like the news, go make your own. People have a tendency to take problematic settings for granted, but in this case they have options for local control enforcement. To be most effective, take action as a group rather than as an individual.  

Friedner Wittman is a retired UC Berkeley researcher. He was founder and director of the Community Prevention Planning Program at the Institute for the Study of Social Change (1988-2011).