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EDITORIAL: Downtown booze problem can't be legislated away

This week, the mayor and council talked about the North's drinking problem.

Citing a study from the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR), that looked at alcohol laws in Canada, Mayor Rebecca Alty said the territory should be making it harder to buy the stuff.

The study proposes legislated restrictions on the hours that bars, restaurants and liquor stores are allowed to serve booze and limits on how much product customers can buy at once.

Liquor stores should only be allowed to operate from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and bartenders should stop serving at 1 a.m., it states. (Last call in Yellowknife is typically around 1:30 so not sure how much difference the half hour would make).

The study also recommends a minimum price on booze of $1.75 per drink at liquor stores and $3.50 per drink in licensed establishments. Again, we're left to wonder how much time the authors spent on the ground writing their report. Good luck buying a drink in Yellowknife for those prices.

The study contains several references to a “gold standard” for best practices in liquor regulations – a standard no province or territory appears able to meet. The closest to come was Ontario, which the institute assigned a score of 55 per cent. The NWT received a lowly 33 per cent score.

Presumably, the ultimate gold standard is prohibition but as many people know, and likely some have forgotten, such measures didn't fare well when implemented more than a century ago provincially, and federally. If people want booze they will get it, and if not from the hand of government-regulated retailers, then they will gladly take it from bootleggers.

This country has just went through a very exhaustive process decriminalizing cannabis after police and lawmakers finally admitted they were powerless in preventing the drug from getting into the hands of minors.

Now, despite the study's call for tough measures, we doubt prohibition is what the authors had in mind but, if Mayor Alty's reasoning for recommending some of these measures was to curb the scourge of public intoxication downtown, she ought to know better.

Restricting hours and increasing prices won't achieve anything other than inconveniencing ordinary

Yellowknifers who don't have a drinking problem, while making it harder for the hospitality industry to make a buck in an already tough business climate.

Alcohol overuse remains a persistent public health problem in the city and territory. A number of studies show the NWT has the highest rate of alcohol-caused hospitalization in Canada; at one point it was six times the national average.

But, for the group of people in the city euphemistically referred to as Yellowknife's “homeless” population, putting more hurdles before them is not going to prevent them from prioritizing their need to get drunk or high on any given day. They will endeavour to collect more change and wait for the liquor store to be open to get their booze, or turn to more dangerous intoxicants, such as mouth wash and hair spray.

Alty's proposals were roundly rejected by council, as they should be. Her mistake was suggesting this a problem that can be fixed with a few legislative tweaks. But this is an inter-generational problem like no other and there is no legal remedy.

The city, and the police and territorial government, have made many positive steps in recent years. That includes launching a day shelter and sobering centre, the Safe Ride program, and deferring public intoxication issues away from the courts.

There is more healing to be done but knocking happy hour isn't going to get us there.