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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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OPINION

Cracking down on sales to chronic drunks is misguided strategy
Address problem, not providers


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I've been thinking a lot lately about how Wisconsin deals with citizens who abuse alcohol. With our dismal drunk-driving statistics, arguments over whether or not to allow children into bars with their folks, and proposals on everything from the size of liquor bottles that may be sold to the taxes placed on beer, the regulation of alcohol is a hot topic these days.

One recent idea comes courtesy of Madison Ald. Michael Schumacher, a member of the Alcohol License Review Committee, and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. They've asked to create a public "no-serve list" that would effectively ban chronic drunks from buying alcohol from any retail establishment in town.

On the surface, it seems like an understandable response to the burden placed on police and taxpayers by the estimated 100 or so habitual offenders who cause the most trouble. These are people who get themselves arrested or are convicted of a crime while drunk at least six times in a given 180-day period. It'd be hard to argue that's not a problem in need of a solution.

But I don't think a blanket ban on alcohol sales is that solution.

I have no doubt that Schumacher and Cieslewicz are looking for ways to help the community as well as those people who clearly have a serious addiction.

But a "no-serve" list, first of all, places an undue burden on retailers seeking to avoid $500 fines. In a Wisconsin State Journal article on the proposal, mayoral aide Joel Plant was quoted as saying, "It's very difficult to enforce. We expect the industry to do the majority of heavy lifting."

This amounts to punishing legitimate businesses for the actions of a few. Retailers are already allowed to create and enforce their own "no-serve" lists. Taking that to the extreme and turning it into a law, with penalties and fees, is a misdirected attack.

And prohibition laws in general tend to give rise to new sorts of problems. I'm not suggesting that banning 100-odd people from buying liquor in Madison would lead to chronic drunks waving Tommy guns from the rear windows of speeding Model Ts. But, if history is any guide, blanket bans just push the issues underground and around the corner. They don't tend to be genuine fixes.

Beyond the logistical difficulties of creating, maintaining and enforcing such a list, the question looms: What else do we do with these chronic abusers? And shouldn't we be doing that instead?

Yes, the individuals on this list have doubtless had other chances, which they have failed to seize. But still, in a civil society, it is never appropriate to write off any whole group as lost causes.

I don't believe in completely absolving people of responsibility for their behavior. There should be serious repercussions for causing harm to those around you.

But appropriate punishment becomes trickier when addiction enters the equation. These people are sick and in need of treatment. Simply barring them from walking into a store and buying their own booze isn't going to do much to treat their underlying illness.

In fact, to really get at the root causes of the issue, we'd need to address our deeply ingrained attitudes about alcohol. We have to face up to the fact that our culture tends to encourage things like binge drinking and looking the other way at those who exhibit signs of serious alcohol abuse.

Foisting responsibility onto the sellers isn't the answer. Our time, money and energy would be better spent focusing on the buyers - developing more effective methods of early education, treatment when needed, and real and binding consequences for when the law is broken.

It's good that we're talking about the problem, but we need to look past the sales counter for the solutions.

Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at www.lostalbatross.com and TheDailyPage.com.

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