OLCC loosens its grip

It's clear which way this river is flowing. It's flowing toward liberalization.

Oregon is flanked by larger states that have gotten, or are getting, out of the business of controlling the distribution and sale of spirits. Washington will switch over to a private marketplace system on June 1, following November's statewide vote to end state control. California is already there.

While an Oregon government agency still dictates who can sell hard liquor, where and for how much, some cracks are appearing. On March 16, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission approved a pilot program allowing four liquor stores to sell beer and wine — products they currently cannot sell — and four retailers to add hard liquor to their beer and wine offerings.

This is an appropriate, if somewhat timid, step toward the inevitable future when the state's role will be limited to licensure and enforcement. It allows cautious legislators to road-test assumptions about more outlets being permitted to sell more kinds of alcoholic products. Will drunken driving arrests increase? Will underage drinking soar? Will neighborhoods be damaged? Will small retailers be crushed?

We think the answer is no, just as states with privatized alcohol sales haven't drowned in a wave of criminal behavior, social ills or monopolistic tendencies. But the limited approach Oregon is taking should help address such concerns.

After June 1, Oregon will be one of just 16 states still controlling the sale of spirits. Some states prohibit liquor sales on election days (Alaska), Christmas (Georgia), or after 2 a.m. (North Dakota and many others), but otherwise, the marketplace prevails. We think this trend is irreversible.

We are less enthusiastic about another action taken Friday by the OLCC board, permitting a pod of food carts in Southeast Portland to begin selling beer and wine.

There's no question the availability of beer and wine at Cartlandia will be a popular option for patrons of such establishments as Rock House Grill, Cake on a Hot Tin Roof, CheeseSteak Nirvana and others. Any meal consumed in Portland can benefit from an accompaniment of moderate amounts of homegrown beers and wines.

Yet, there's something fundamentally different about selling alcohol to customers standing or walking around a parking lot than to customers who are seated and receiving periodic attention from a server. We think the OLCC should have heeded Portland Assistant Police Chief Eric Hendricks, who told the commission last week, "Our concern is simply that it will open the floodgates and create a public safety problem that we're not equipped to address."

Now, this is an opportunity for Cartlandia — and the city's entire flourishing food cart community — to make sure that carts sell alcohol responsibly. Perhaps the police and others who worry about drunkenness and unsavory behavior will be reassured by what they see. As OLCC Commissioner Robert Rice explains, Cartlandia's approach was "a Cadillac" — a high-quality application that accepted strict limits imposed by the commission.

But if it turns out that the police were right to be concerned, that it proves to be a mistake to trust customers to responsibly consume beer and wine on a patch of asphalt, then this experiment should be abandoned.

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