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The Rules

Liquor Branch spells out enforcement strategy Gray areas in liquor laws become more black and white with new terms and conditions In the past, the liquor industry in B.C. has been largely self-regulating.

Liquor Branch spells out enforcement strategy

Gray areas in liquor laws become more black and white with new terms and conditions

In the past, the liquor industry in B.C. has been largely self-regulating. Bars and pubs would snitch on one another or the RCMP would issue a ‘bar slip’, and the matter would be passed on to a board at the provincial liquor distribution branch. The liquor branch would then investigate the charge and decide on a penalty.

There was no consistency in enforcement or in the penalties associated with liquor offences, and tensions between bar owners increased with the absence of a level playing field. None of them had any objection to a new set of rules and enforcement guidelines providing that they were applied equally to all bars and restaurants.

After some public consultation with bar owners, the government responded with A Guide for Liquor Licensees in British Columbia: Terms and Conditions of a Liquor License – a comprehensive overview of a revamped compliance and enforcement program. The entire process is spelled out.

According to Liquor Control and Licensing Branch general manager Thea Vakil, "It provides you with information regarding the branch’s enforcement program, your responsibility to operate your establishment in a lawful manner, and the possible consequences if you do not. It imposes terms and conditions on your license that are in addition to those found in the Liquor Control and Licensing Act and Regulations."

Locally, a liquor inspector was hired to implement the new guidelines, and by all reports inspector Allan Andrews has performed the task diligently – some say a little too diligently.

While the RCMP has always issued bar slips to local drinking establishments, with the addition of a liquor inspector, the number of slips issued has increased. Last weekend, the RCMP issued five slips to four different establishments for offences that include over capacity, allowing patrons to leave a licensed area, allowing someone to consume alcohol after bar hours, and employees consuming.

As a result of this diligence, local drinking establishments have held meetings to discuss the negative impact that so much enforcement is having on their businesses.

For their part, the RCMP say they are doing nothing but enforcing the laws that are on the books, and that the liquor license holders themselves established. They have always conducted walk-throughs of licensed establishments.

"Five slips at four different establishments is quite a few for a weekend, but it’s not as indicative of an increase in enforcement as it is of a problem we may have," says RCMP Community Policing Officer Ray Bernoties.

"We invited all licensed establishments to a meeting nine months ago to discuss the issue of a high level of drunkenness and violence in the village. We discussed a number of pro-active ways we could deal with the issue, and we would prefer local establishments to take a pro-active approach. But when that’s not working, that means enforcement."

On any given weekend, Bernoties says that the majority of RCMP time and energy is spent dealing with incidents that involve alcohol in some way. "We’re enforcing laws that have been in place for a long time. Some establishments have probably gotten away with a little more than they should have in the past. And now that we’re acting, it seems like we’re cracking the whip, when all we’re trying to do is keep control of the village after the bars close," says Bernoties.

"Probably 95 per cent of our calls are related to alcohol. It makes sense to prevent the situation earlier in the evening."

On the same weekend that the RCMP handed out five slips, patrols arrested five people for fighting and arrested eight drunks – three locals, four from the Lower Mainland and one American who had passed out in the hallway of a hotel.

If you threw a few driver’s license suspensions and a case of drunk driving into the equation, it would have been a typical weekend.

As for the bars that were handed slips, no punitive actions have yet been taken in light of the new enforcement regulations – they’re so new that bar owners may be given the benefit of the doubt.

Schedule 4(2) of the Terms and Conditions lists the penalties that can be imposed for each offence in a one, two, three strike format. Whether it has any balls is yet to be seen.

For operating a licensed establishment outside of its licence class (i.e. operating a restaurant as a bar) an establishment can be fined $7,500 to $10,000 for a first offence and receive a mandatory suspension of 10 to 15 days. For a second offence, the suspension is increased from 20 to 30 days, and for a third offence, for 30 to 60 days.

For serving a minor, a licence holder can be suspended from four to seven days and fined $5,000 to $7,000.

For overcrowding, a common Whistler complaint, a bar or restaurant can be suspended from four to seven days and fined $5,000 to $7,000.

For serving after hours, the same penalty applies. For serving an employee, an establishment can be suspended from one to three days, and pay $1,000 to $3,000 in fines.

While the playing field may have been leveled by the new guidelines, and the ref may be blowing the whistle a lot more than usual, the severity of the penalties is a cause for concern for some licensees – if the laws were enforced, four Whistler establishments would be forced to lock up the taps and pay more than $26,000 in fines.

The institution of these new penalties was part of a give and take process that saw bars and pubs gain the right to bring the number of licensed seats more in line with capacities, and a simplification of the liquor licensing process. Restaurants will also be able to serve alcohol at a percentage of their seats, and bars and pubs will be able to keep the same hours if they choose.

But does the punishment fit the crime, or more accurately, reflect the nature of Whistler as a tourist destination and world famous party town? Only one thing is for certain – local drinking establishments are far from happy with the level of enforcement, and until they are this issue is far from being closed.

Only time – and a difficult and painful adjustment period for local drinking establishments – will tell.