Opinion

It’s summertime and the drinking is easy

The B.C. government’s move to ease liquor restrictions is undergoing its hot summer test, and music festivals are only part of it.

Premier Christy Clark’s government loves its populist gestures, and as with increasing rural highway speed limits, the negative effects have yet to be quantified.

Free-range drinking, or removing fences from festival beer gardens, is one of the moves that will be undergoing a post-mortem as communities clean up after their big summer parties.

One of the biggest, the Squamish Valley Music Festival with headline acts Arcade Fire, Bruno Mars and Eminem, is still to come, Aug. 8 to 10. Country fans gathered during the long weekend for SunFest in the Cowichan Valley, with the Rockin’ River Musicfest in Mission coming up next.

(Another big bash next weekend is Shambhala, the popular electronic music event on a farm near Nelson, but alcohol is officially banned there and their big issue is controlling the effects of ecstasy and other rave drugs.)

Early reviews of free-range festivals have been positive. Victoria’s Rock the Shores event went smoothly without a fenced-in area for alcohol sales. Festival organizers did create a fenced dry area, but I’m told hardly anyone used it.

Penticton has had its share of experience with summer bashes gone bad. For B.C. Day it inherited the Boonstock Music and Arts festival, sent packing from a small community in Alberta after complaints of rowdy crowds and crime, so Penticton officials were understandably cautious.

Boonstock organizers were refused a provincial liquor licence after struggling to arrange security and emergency services. The festival licence process is likely getting renewed attention these days.

After attending the recent Calgary Folk Festival, where the beer garden was securely fenced and the capacity monitored, I’m wondering what is really achieved by these measures. Litter and empties were contained, but since under-age festival visitors are allowed into the serving area, it’s not clear to me whether the fence was ever worth the effort.

It’s unlikely there will be riots at farm markets as a result of allowing sales of locally made beer, wine and spirits, or from relaxing rules for operation of winery tasting rooms. But there are more reforms to come.

New regulations are on the way for the Agricultural Land Reserve. As it stands, farms are allowed to have a winery or cidery, but not a brewery or distillery. Expect that to be changed as B.C. and other provinces strive to develop their craft beer and spirits industry, trying to emulate the tourism benefits that have come from an expanding wine industry.

One area where the B.C. government has screwed up is its minimum pricing rules, introduced along with the overdue move to allow happy-hour discounts in pubs.

The minimum price of 25 cents an ounce for beer, 60 cents an ounce for wine and $3 an ounce for hard liquor was an effort to balance business-friendly policy with legitimate public health concern about over-consumption.

But the minimum beer price prompted protests from a few watering holes that had been selling pints or jugs of beer for slightly less. Some media made a big deal of this, and the government over-reacted to this tempest in a beer stein with an ill-thought-out cut in the minimum price to 20 cents an ounce – for beer in jugs only.

The pub industry was not impressed with this bit of knee-jerk populism. Encouraging beer jug sales makes it difficult to see if someone at a table of revelers is being over-served, drinking most of the jug himself.

Tom Fletcher is the legislative reporter for Black Press. Reach him at tfletcher@blackpress.ca.

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