April 13, 2012

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s push to extend the hours of alcohol sales in the District asks too much of our neighborhoods and returns too little.

Under the mayor’s plan, D.C. bars and clubs would be able to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. on weekends and 3 a.m. during the week (one hour later than they can now), while liquor stores could open their doors at 7 a.m (two hours earlier than currently allowed). But Gray has overvalued the benefits of the change and underestimated the burdens it would bring. In exchange for about $3 million in new sales tax revenue — less than 1 percent of the city’s budget — the plan would compromise our safety, health and peace of mind.

Research confirms what many of us intuit: Extending the hours of alcohol sales increases alcohol­related harm. A 1999 report by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention found that allowing bars, clubs and restaurants to sell liquor later into the night results in more drunken driving and alcohol-related injuries and assaults. The World Health Organization has looked at the issue more recently, concluding in a 2009 report that “while extending times of sale can redistribute the times when many alcohol-related incidents occur, such extensions generally do not reduce the rates of violent incidents and often lead to an overall increase in consumption and problems.” The WHO report goes on to argue that the most effective method of reducing alcohol-related harm is limiting hours of sale.

I appreciate the enthusiasm of the mayor and others who want to turn the District into a New York-like “24-hour” city. But we have to work out a few kinks first. Bar patrons clearly won’t be the only ones to pay the price for all those additional drinks. They will pay for their last-call beers and be done with it, but residents will get stuck with a tab that includes more late-night noise, harassment, trash and vandalism.

Several questions are impossible to ignore. How can we allow liquor stores to open at the crack of dawn when the District already has the highest rate of adult alcohol abuse in the country? How do we justify allowing alcohol to be sold until 4 a.m. when Metrorail has no plans to extend its hours past 3? And how can we open the door to more booze knowing that some neighborhoods are sure to bear a disproportionate share of the pain?

In Adams Morgan, residents and local businesses have worked closely to scale back nightlife excesses that threaten the peace and public order. We lobbied the Metropolitan Police Department, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and the office of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) to improve security on nights and weekends. As a result, our streets are safer and our community stronger. All of that progress is now at risk as the city grasps for a source of new funds.

I recognize the challenge facing the mayor. The city’s budgetary problems cry out for a solution. But a city budget isn’t just an attempt to balance revenue and spending, it’s also an exercise in balancing our priorities. Unfortunately, the mayor’s proposal sends the wrong message about the risks he is willing to take for a reward that amounts to little more than a rounding error.

The writer chairs the Ward 1C Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s committee on alcohol beverage consumption and public safety.