Declaring War on the Liquor Board
Our State Liquor Rules Are Ridiculous, Inefficient, Prudish, and a Waste of Taxpayer Dollars
Mike Dawson / www.judgmentalist.com
The Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) does two things: It retails liquor and it enforces liquor laws. It doesn't do a bang-up job of either. On November 22, it snowed 2.5 inches in Seattle and parts of the city shut down—bus routes canceled, schools closed—while retail and grocery stores mostly operated on schedule. That is, except the state-run liquor stores.
When I arrived at 6:07 p.m., the store near work on Capitol Hill, the store usually open until 9:00 p.m., was already closed. A printed sign said that "due to weather conditions" the store would be closing early, at 7:00 p.m., although someone had since taken a Sharpie to the sign and changed the 7 into a 6. The next day, the store was still closed, with a new sign taped to the door that said, "Due to weather conditions we will not be opening on time, and we will be closing early if we do open." Just keep coming back all day long! We might open! Maybe!
It never opened that day.
So citizens who wanted to drink whiskey or brandy while it was snowing out, the best time to drink whiskey or brandy, were shit out of luck—that's how a monopoly works. Later in the day, a friend called to say that another store a half mile north was open. It was mobbed—so mobbed that I had to wait in a line outside (temperature: 21 degrees) just to get inside the store, where there were many empty shelves and still more lines just to buy what was left.
Customers were so frustrated, freezing, and confused that I couldn't help but wonder: If the snowstorm had hit before the election, and frustration was still palpable, would the liquor privatizing Initiative 1100 have passed? It lost by a narrow margin. If it had passed, Washington State would have joined the 32 other states in the country that don't have a state monopoly on selling liquor—states where independent retailers keep their doors open and give citizens plenty of options to, say, buy a bottle of whiskey in the middle of a blizzard.
One of the main arguments against privatizing liquor was that the state would lose money that comes from the markup on retail sales—which the state uses to fund enforcement. But enforcement of liquor laws is not just about keeping liquor out of the hands of minors. It's also a way for liquor enforcement officers to target businesses they don't like.
Liquor enforcement officers Lorn Richey and David Stitt make $57,240 and $49,386 per year, respectively. What does that money pay for? In part, it pays for Richey and Stitt to conduct plainclothes premises checks at places like the Eagle, a gay leather bar on Capitol Hill. As Matt Luby reported in The Stranger on November 11 ("Liquor Officers Gone Wild"), Richey and Stitt paid a visit to the Eagle on October 23 and saw something so egregious that they issued a $500 violation for "lewd conduct" to the owner of the Eagle, Keith Christensen. The infraction was a video with "a close-up of a man's lubricated, erect penis as the subject masturbated," according to the WSLCB's 13-page report on the incident.
While it's ridiculous that we live in a state where one perfectly legal thing (pornography) and another perfectly legal thing (alcohol) add up to an illegal thing—next thing you know, drunk people could want to have sex!—what's more ridiculous is that whether a bar gets a warning or a fine is entirely up to an officer's discretion. That explains why, when an enforcement officer did a premises check of Cyclops in Belltown in October and observed "three intoxicated patrons" being "overserved" as well as a male patron sitting in a booth "rubbing a female's crotch," Cyclops got off with mere warnings but no fines. When an enforcement officer visited Wayne's Inn Bar & Grill in Puyallup in May of this year, the officer observed two female patrons "caressing and exposing breasts," and Wayne's Inn got off with a warning.
So how can it be that a video of someone's genitals—the video playing at the Eagle was Guys Gone Wild—is a more severe infraction than live, in-person fondling and exposing?
Responding to the apparent inequality in enforcement raised by the Eagle's "violation," retiring state representative Brendan Williams, a member of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, sent an e-mail on November 28 to Rick Garza, the deputy director of the Washington State Liquor Control board, regarding "perceived selective enforcement as it pertains to bars that largely serve the LGBT community. Given that the civil rights movement for this community is popularly credited with having begun at such a bar (The Stonewall Inn), I need not tell you how politically charged the perception of any law enforcement targeting is." He included a link to The Stranger's recent reporting about the Eagle.
In that story, liquor control board spokeswoman Susan Reams was quoted as saying that relying on officer discretion was "a good thing." I called her and asked her to elaborate. She said that the quote came in the context of a question about "whether officers should have discretion." But what about the inequality between the way a gay bar was treated compared to a straight bar? "This question has nothing to do with walking into an establishment and seeing something that isn't allowed in the rules of the state," she said. But given that it's all up to an officer's discretion—exposing breasts and fondling in bars are also against state rules—doesn't that mean that an officer could discriminate against a gay bar? "That is not a valid question," she said defensively. Why wasn't it a valid question? She raised her voice and said, "IT'S NOT A VALID QUESTION," and threatened to hang up.
If a bar has "repeat violations for that type of offense," says WSLCB deputy chief of enforcement Justin Nordhorn, "a ticket is most likely going to be written. The Eagle has actually had multiple violations in the past where the liquor board has worked with them and educated them on expectations from the liquor board." It's true: As The Stranger reported on November 11, the Eagle has had violations in the past, and in order to shape up, Christensen, the Eagle owner, has had WSLCB officer Richey prescreen videos to make sure they comply with the rules.
Asked how much time—how many taxpayer dollars—officers have spent hanging out at his bar and prescreening gay erotica, Christensen says, "I don't know. They come in undercover. They pay the cover to get in, they float around the area, they take pictures—whatever suits them. Who knows! Your guess is as good as mine. I assume they're in here every day."
After trying to comply with rules and getting dinged anyway, the Eagle and nightlife promoter Kevin Kauer are starting a new monthly night called The Seattle Eagle vs. the Liquor Control Board. The first one's on December 11, with performances by Lisa Dank, a bunch of DJs, and screenings of exploitation films of the 1970s from Australia ("Stuff like strapping a girl to a car with no top on and running the car at top speed").
Maybe the WSLCB will show up for the fun.