Madison has a strange relationship with spirits.
I'm not talking about ghosts, of course. I mean alcohol - for better or worse a big part of our city's history and culture. Taverns and bars line our streets. Micro- and macro-breweries are as prevalent as cheesemakers in other parts of the state. The UW-Madison student union has a German-style drinking hall inside.
It has come as no surprise then, that our problems with alcohol are just as widespread. Too-high rates of drunk driving and binge drinking; too many minors getting plastered at house parties; too much sickness and dysfunction related to our love of booze.
So we have regulatory bodies like Madison's Alcohol License Review Committee (ALRC) and policies in place to curb the amount of spirit saturation in the city.
But the methods employed by those groups have been inconsistent at best. Recently, for instance, Walgreens decided it wanted to get back into the business of selling liquor at its stores, after a decade out of the game. It applied for a license to do so at five of its local stores.
At the June 16 meeting the ALRC denied two of them and voted to delay a decision on the remaining three.
It all seems a bit perplexing. Why give Walgreens a hard time when plenty of similar grocery stores in the area have liquor licenses? I posed this question to Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, who voted for the two denials, and she explained: "Walgreens are generally within a neighborhood, [within] walking distance, and thus in my experience more often frequented by unsupervised teenagers."
Walgreens stores may in fact be more accessible than a regular liquor store, although I'm not sure they're any easier for teens to wander into than a grocery. But my issue is that these license regulations seem to be applied rather unevenly, and enforcement of the rules around having them is even spottier.
Take, for instance, the case of the Kollege Klub that made headlines last year. The city's official complaint, as described in the Wisconsin State Journal, accused the campus institution of "allowing underage people in the bar, selling liquor to intoxicated patrons, fights and other problems that make it a 'disorderly house.'"
Madison police were prepared to bring evidence against the Kollege Klub in a nonrenewal hearing, but instead then-Alcohol Policy Coordinator Katherine Plominski did an end-run around law enforcement. She struck a quiet deal with the Kollege Klub for "lesser sanctions," wherein it was allowed to keep its license without much further scrutiny. It was a slap on the wrist for a bar with a long history of violations and went against everything the ALRC claims to be about.
And then there's the city's Alcohol License Density Ordinance. Much maligned by students, business owners and some alders, the ordinance is scheduled for a beautiful sunset this fall. It limits the number of liquor licenses available downtown as a way of cutting down on alcohol-related crime and disturbances.
But there's little evidence this has occurred. And some of the side rules - for example, that the license of a vacated establishment must be filled within a year - have had to be amended or removed when they proved untenable.
There's no way to get policy 100% right on the first try. I get that. But we've been at this crusade for a long time now, and the major trend seems to be big talk and little effective action.
In the same way that our state needs to make a far more serious effort at discouraging drunk driving by imposing criminal penalties right from the start, Madison needs to hold the real offenders accountable without trampling the rights of responsible revelers.
Beyond that, we can't glorify the beer stein with one hand while telling and expecting minors not to touch the stuff - it takes better, lifelong education. We can't litter the nearby streets with bars and clubs and not understand that the under-21 crowd will still try to get in because it's pretty much the only entertainment game in town; we need to provide decent alternatives. And we can't award liquor licenses to one big, family-friendly retailer and then deny a similar establishment without the whole process coming into question.
I'm not arguing that the ALRC should be stricter or more lenient. I'm saying it should be more consistent. And that will only come about when we start being brutally honest about our drinking culture and the lack of nightlife options for minors, and when we stop brushing more serious offenses under the rug.
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at TheDailyPage.com.