Island Life by David Slack

More than they can handle

Let's start with a disclaimer. Various people who have shared a drink with me, up to and including last Friday will tell you that anything that bastard says about drinking moderately should be taken with a grain of salt.

I like the stuff, and quite often I enjoy a good helping of it. I could possibly be a binge drinker, according to ALAC. According to ALAC, so could you be. And so could she, and so could her mates, and that guy over there, and everyone in the band apart from the drummer. Binge drinkers everywhere, depending on how you look at it.

Right up until I had my heart attack, I could not have been less concerned. For the first year or so afterwards, I barely touched the stuff. Gradually, inevitably, I adjusted the dosage. By the time I was associating with press gallery journalists, intake was edging back up to historical levels.

But "edging back up" is not the same as reprising them. There were no lost-from-memory final hours of drinking, no broken noses (and if you've seen mine you'll understand the imperative), generally none of the pitiful stuff. And that's pretty much where the very big days of chucking them back ended. The rest you can put down to aging, parenthood and the none-too-vague sense of guilt that now hovers around a hangover. It also helped that the first contract I picked up after I finished working in the Beehive was a road safety campaign that involved working with ALAC and Sally Casswell and her colleagues in alcohol research at Auckland Medical School . How would it have looked? etc.

I've worked in pubs, I've worked for a brewery, I've worked with the health promotion people. I've been involved in licensing the stuff, advertising it, and of course, consuming it. I've eaten, as the marketing axiom goes, plenty of the dogfood. I am entirely in favour of its distribution, and I am just as much in favour of the careful control of that distribution, because it's a drug. Just like all the others.

You know what demons the cops are on those drugs.

Wander down to the district court any morning and entertain yourself some time. If you can get through the day without hearing a good deal about alcohol, I'll buy you a Tui. Or even a decent beer, if you like. The language can be a little emasculated, a little genteel, but everyone knows what it means. Some 18 year old got himself full of piss and went off his nut. Some married guy was in a bar for six hours and got uglier with every rum and coke until he took to some other guy and gave his head a mashing. Then he went home and wasted his missus.

Ask the cops. They've could give you stories to last you all day. So if someone somewhere in the Auckland police hierarchy decides that it might be worth going into a few pubs and looking for any intoxicated punters then I'm not nearly as indignant about it as some people have been.

In the simplest terms, it couldn't be more straightforward. The law says you can't serve people who are intoxicated. The cops are going into bars to see that the law's being complied with.

It's not some new piece of jack-booted nanny-statism just introduced by this administration of crazed social engineers. It was passed in 1989, alongside a pretty substantial liberalisation of the drinking laws. The whole idea was that you'd no longer have a highly regulated regime with closing hours at 10 or 11, and only a limited number of bars per town. And to make sure that this didn't lead to untrammeled debauchery, they also raised the stakes for anyone who was serving the stuff.

The bars have never made a secret of this. If you've ever stopped to read the notices they hang all over the place - often in the spot where in earlier times there would be a Hotel Association of New Zealand sign telling you they'd prosecute you for nicking the glassware - you'll get the message easily enough: "we won't serve you if you're drunk: we could get fined $5000."

So into this picture come some Auckland police to see that the bars are complying with the law. Just like they used to do when I was an underage drinker and a sea of blue would wash across the bar as the officers of the team policing unit would establish if we'd correctly memorised the date of birth on the driver's licence we'd borrowed from our older mate.

The charges against the police, according to a few of the disgruntled citizens are as follows: waste of police time, distortion of priorities, social engineering, and taking it upon themselves to deal with matters that are not their concern.

I don't see much to warrant a conviction here.

Blair Mulholland argues that

We don't need more police, we just need them chasing crime. Y'know, burglaries, car theft, vandalism....

Consider every crime that was committed in the last week. Take the alcohol or the drugs out of the equation, and I'll guarantee you that many fewer people would have decided on the spur of the moment - which is how these things quite often take shape - to do it.

A police squad moving through bars to ensure that people aren't routinely getting plastered is surely likely to keep bar staff alert to the job. No, it won't stop the ones who are drinking at home, and no, it won't have any relevance to the crimes that the sober ones are committing. But if you think that a bar full of seriously pissed customers isn't half a dozen assaults and other summary offences waiting to happen, then you never saw the Cambridge Establishment or the Royal Oak or the Royal Tiger or even the couldn't-be-flasher 1860 Victualling Company in Wellington in 1982.

David Farrar thinks the practice is "fucking stupid".

And the Police have some real scientific tests to determine intoxication - such as glazed eyes or being loud. And their classifications of the level of intoxication is almost as good as the US terror warning system of red, orange etc. Instead we have slight, moderate, extreme, and unconscious!!

Actually I suspect the test is the same one that the Hotel Association and ALAC and the local authorities thrashed out when this legislation was drafted when they were debating how staff could possibly tell if someone was intoxicated. Have a look at this example the Dunedin city council offers.

My own experience from standing on the sober side of the bar is that it's not especially hard to gauge.

All of this of course, is as nothing compared to the outrage of the social engineering licenced by this nanny state. Or to put it another way - law enforcement is supposed to be what happens to other people, not middle class people like me. If I want to get pissed, or drive fast, that's my right, and how dare they tell me what to do. Because your rights are mitigated by the rights of others not to be harmed by the consequences of your drinking or your driving perhaps?

To be sure, Senior Sergeant Mulcahy, who's in charge of policing liquor licence laws for the Auckland City district may have given the critics some ammunition with his remarks about people spending all their money on alcohol.

But do we really not want police to be doing some thinking about the causes of crime? He may be right, he may be wrong, I don't know. But the theory that people might blow all their money on drink and drugs and then become a problem for the rest of us while they wait for more cash doesn't sound entirely implausible to me.

You might address that with social policy, you might address it with some police activity. And maybe you might address it with a blend of the two. It's a fair topic for debate though, I'd suggest, and it seems reflexive to say simply that this is no business of the police.

Social engineering is what, exactly? Teaching our kids? Censorship? Recognising people in the New Years Honours? The state gets involved in making and expressing all kinds of judgments and encouraging or coercing people to behave in certain ways, and it was doing it long before this administration took office.

There's nothing in this news that will drive me to drink.