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Dear Washington, I don’t care what you say on I-1183, I just don’t want you to be misled.

October 20, 2011

If you haven’t heard (and unless you’re in the north west, you probably haven’t) there is a bitter liquor law controversy in Washington.  Special interest groups have spent record campaign money over I-1183 which would privatize the state’s liquor stores.   What it comes down to is business, as always.  Grocery stores, and Costco in particular want to be able to sell hard liquor, but beer wholesalers aren’t super excited about the competition from liquor on store shelves.

I don’t live in Washington, so I don’t have any skin in the game (although there have been similar attempts to privatize in Utah).  What interests me about Washington’s I-1183 controversy, from a DUI and criminal law standpoint, are the tactics these ‘No on I-1183’ campaigns are using.  Specifically, they’re claiming that the initiative would allow gas stations, convenience stores, and mini marts to sell hard liquor.  The ‘No’ campaigns claim that this would be a horrible travesty of public safety, and they seem to be having some success convincing the general public.

The claim that it would allow convenience stores to sell liquor is itself debatable, but that’s another story.  What I’m interested in is the assumption that it creates a public danger.

I see an underlying hypocrisy in the general public’s stance on DUI laws.  An underlying hypocrisy that I think is sub-conscious, and I want to bring it to the forefront of everyone’s attention so that our “community” can eradicate it.

We all agree that driving under the influence is dangerous to the public.  And we all agree that if someone chooses to drink and drive, they are ultimately to blame for their own actions.  Thus, DUI is a crime – you combine the guilty act of driving under the influence with a guilty mind, which consists of an individual who knowingly and intentionally gets behind the wheel after having too much to drink.  “Know your Limits”, “Drink Responsibly”, “Friends don’t let friends…” you get the idea.

Everyone’s with me here, I’m sure.  Nothing groundbreaking, nothing scandalous.  In fact, I think we should all take just a moment, before reading on, to relish in this rare moment of solidarity.  It is not often in the age of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Sarah Palin, Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Obamacare and the tears of John Boehner that we can all agree on something.

Moving on, then.

The assumption underlying DUI laws (as with any criminal law) is that a person is responsible for his own actions.  If he chooses to have another Margarita with his fish tacos at dinner, he had better not drive home, and if he does…he cannot blame his actions on the waiter who talked him into it, or the billboard that made him think he would be cooler if he drank just a little more Cuervo.  This man is an evil, horrible, reprehensible, irresponsible, spawn of chaotic terror who is putting your children’s lives at risk, and society has agreed (depending on the jurisdiction) to fine him $1500, make him spend a day in jail, take away his drivers license, and force him to get a lawyer.

And as a DUI lawyer I say, “fine”.  After all, we all agree, even the DUI attorneys, that driving under the influence is dangerous.

Here’s where it gets dicey.  Groups like Protect our Communities and campaigns like ‘No on I-1183’ in Washington are concerned for the safety of our families (or are owners of beer wholesalers that don’t want competition from liquor in grocery stores, depending on how you look at it).  They say that if someone can buy hard liquor at a convenience store, then they’re going to, I guess, stop in on the way home from work and buy a bottle of vodka for the road.  I am literally disgusted by this misleading play on our worry for the safety of our children and families. They’re taking advantage of us.

There is some severe cognitive defect (well, I’ll say ‘misconception’, that’s less offensive) – there is some misconception among the general public that hard liquor will get a person more intoxicated than beer, and these campaigns are playing off of that misconception.  The truth is alcohol is alcohol.  There is no magic, extra-strength alcohol that goes into hard liquor that is different than the stuff in Bud Light.  A shot of 80 proof liquor has the same amount of alcohol as a 12 oz. can of beer.  Consequently it has the same effect on your body.

Now it is true that alcohol in liquor is more concentrated…but have you ever seen someone shotgun a 12 oz. can of Smirnoff?

I didn’t think so…

So ask yourself.  What are the chances that some moron who has nothing to live for is going to stop at a convenience store on the way home and down any significant quantity of vodka?  If he did, what are the chances that he wouldn’t have bought beer instead of vodka if the convenience store were only allowed to sell beer?  Finally, and most importantly, isn’t it true that he himself is responsible for his terribly dangerous choice to do so?  Isn’t it true that he alone should bear the responsibility to drive safely or suffer the consequences of his failure to do so?   That’s what DUI laws say…because if it weren’t his fault for choosing to drink, if he were just a victim of the terrible effects of I-1183, if he just couldn’t stop himself from downing that warm hard liquor without ice and a mixer – or even a glass – then he wouldn’t be guilty under criminal law.  The DA would have to go after the store instead, or the liquor company.

The point is that we, as a society (of questionable understanding of the distinction between the physiological effects beer and liquor) cannot have it both ways.  If we are going to blame the individual for his own decision to drive under the influence, fine, so be it.  But we cannot then turn around and say that a temptation as slight as making hard liquor available at a convenience store is going to create some irrepressible impulse in people to just get shit faced on whiskey while they’re filling their car with gas.

I mean, that’s just ridiculous.  What is the thought process supposed to look like?  Are we really afraid that something like this is going to happen: “Oh I need to stop for gas…boy I really need to get drunk too…but the gas station only sells beer, that wont get me drunk fast enough…oh wait! I forgot that new liquor law passed, now I can buy gin at the gas station, I’ll just stop and run in while my car is filling up, buy a fifth and guzzle it before I get back on the road.  I mean, really I don’t even have a choice, after all I have absolutely no individual will power or impulse control.  Thank God for that law…I would never have just stopped to buy beer at the convenience store, but now that they sell liquor I’m good to go!”

C’mon man.

The campaign also expresses worry that minors are going to be able to get their hands on liquor more easily if it’s available at convenience stores.  They spat out a statistic, something like gas stations sell alcohol to minors on 1 out of every 4 attempts.   So I suppose that the assumption goes: “well, teenagers are already getting beer whenever they want, and if this I-1183 passes they’ll be able to get liquor as well.”  But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter because, as we now know, alcohol is alcohol whether it’s in the form of beer or hard liquor.

Anyway, I’ve seen teens with hard liquor (…when I was one myself…not recently…).  They generally don’t do so well with it.  Sure there’s a few hardened Jack and Jim swiggin’, 17 year old Cheerleaders out there, but let’s face it, the lion’s share of teens tend to prefer beer anyway.

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