Since a ban on cheap fortified beers and wines took effect last year in downtown Spokane, incidents related to public intoxication in the area have dropped.
The state Liquor Control Board agreed last April to the city’s request to establish a mandatory alcohol impact area downtown, preventing liquor licensees from selling 32 low-cost, high-octane beers and wines in single cans and six-packs for off-premise consumption in an effort to combat chronic public intoxication.
Medical calls for alcohol-related incidents have since dropped 47 percent in the area, which stretches from Cannon Street in Browne’s Addition to Scott Street in east Spokane, Spokane Falls Boulevard to the north and Fifth Avenue to the south. Police responses to alcohol-related incidents in the area have decreased 16 percent.
“I’m thinking it’s a pretty good drop,” said Spokane police Officer Max Hewitt. “I’m hoping to see an even further decrease by next year.”
Beginning May 1, four more drinks will be added to the list of banned beverages, he said.
But many say the ban is simply pushing the problem of public intoxication – and the problems that go with it – outside the downtown core to areas such as the East Central and West Central neighborhoods.
“When they put that in place, the people (downtown) that could no longer buy the cheap fortified beer and wine moved north and they moved east,” said Jim Hanley, vice chairman of the East Central Neighborhood Committee.
Hewitt agreed that, anecdotally, the problems associated with public drunkenness seem to be moving to outlying areas. Beginning this summer, officials will begin tracking statistics related to public intoxication in East Central to determine whether the city will push for a mandatory alcohol impact area there.
Chronic public intoxication, Hewitt said, creates a nuisance, hurts business and leads to property crimes, including theft and panhandling.
“These people will hang out in different store entryways or in the alleys,” he said. “They urinate, they defecate, they hang around and drink in public, get drunk. So, you end up with a lot of nuisance-type crimes, as well as sanitation, health issues. It also contributes to their alcoholism.”
Participation in the downtown alcohol impact area was voluntary at first, but after getting little cooperation from business owners, the state Liquor Control Board approved the city’s request to make it mandatory.
Similarly, a voluntary alcohol impact zone was established in the East Central neighborhood in 2009, but again the city faces opposition from store owners, he said.
“Their typical argument is that … they’ll lose money by not selling these fortified beers to the transients or chronic inebriants,” Hewitt said. “Their other argument is they’re just going to go buy it somewhere else.
“They really don’t care about the neighborhood as long as they’re making money,” he added.
While many residents in those areas support a mandatory ban on the products, business owners who sell them say pulling the products will hurt business.
Loan Ho, manager at Hai’s Mini Market on Sprague Avenue and Lee Street, about two miles east of the downtown core, said that while she won’t voluntarily pull the products from the shelves, she has tried to compromise with the city’s efforts to reduce public drunkenness.
“We try to not sell to people who are drunk,” she said. “I can tell right away if they’ve been drinking.”
Behind the counter on the wall of the convenience store hangs a television, displaying feeds from the numerous security cameras that surround the store. Ho said employees watch for people drinking or creating a nuisance outside and refuse them service if they come into the store to buy alcohol.
She said the alcohol impact areas are unfair and that customers will simply walk a few blocks to buy the products from other businesses, leaving her at a disadvantage. If the products are going to be banned at all, she said, they should be banned citywide.
“I’m a business,” she said. “I want a living. I don’t have enough income. I don’t know what to do.”
If the products are banned in East Central, she said, the problem of public drunkenness won’t go away. It will simply move to other areas, along with many of her customers.
However, Hanley said business owners who oppose the ban should be concerned with more than their bottom line.
“You’ve got to have some community spirit,” he said. “The community out here, in general, is fed up with this. There’s no reason why we have to tolerate this public intoxication – period.”