Merchants can do more to stop public drunkenness

For many chronic inebriates, malt liquor and and fortified wine are the drinks of choice: They’re cheap, and their high-alcohol content results in a quick buzz. The small containers are easily hidden.

To get those drinks in Tacoma, buyers now have to travel outside the downtown core and Lincoln District; both areas have been designated as Alcohol Impact Areas where the beverages cannot be sold.

But the AIA’s downtown and in the Lincoln District have had an unwelcome side effect: Shifting the problems associated with public inebriation – including litter, public urination and a sense of decline – to other neighborhoods that lack restrictions on the cheap alcohol.

Tacoma has a public transit system. Hop on a bus downtown, and it’s a straight shot to stores in the city’s West and North ends where merchants have refused to abide by voluntary restrictions on selling street drunks their poisons of choice.

Now residents in those areas, tired of dealing with public inebriation problems, are agitating for AIA protection of their own. The proposed West End AIA would be the largest yet, encompassing most of the West and North ends.

If the third AIA were approved, those seeking a cheap buzz would just have to travel a bit farther. And again, the problems likely would come along with them to plague other neighborhoods.

Tacoma doesn’t have the option of becoming one big AIA; under state law, an AIA is supposed to be “a geographic area located within a city, town or county.” It can’t be an entire jurisdiction.

The city does have a way around that, though: a geographically isolated neighborhood – Northeast Tacoma – unlikely to be affected by a third AIA.

But that’s not the case for the South End or the adjacent city of University Place. Both are likely to get the blowback from creation of a West End AIA. This ultimately turns into a game of whack-a-mole. At best, AIAs alone can break up the worst concentrations of public drunkenness so a handful of neighborhoods don’t bear the full burden.

In a better world, the root problem – alcoholism and the despair behind it – would be alleviated with adequate treatment and community support. But another problem could be more easily addressed if a few dozen people acquired a stronger sense of social responsibility.

The street inebriates tend to buy their rotgut at specific convenience stores and other small retail outlets. When citizens petition the state to create an Alcohol Impact Area, the store owners must first be asked to voluntarily take the problem beverages off their shelves. Both downtown and in the Lincoln District, some merchants refused to do that – and incurred the ban.

It would be so refreshing to see alcohol merchants in the West and North ends get together and collectively decide not to carry the drinks in question. Then, when the inebriates stumble over to University Place and the South End, to see the merchants in those communities do likewise.