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Public Works: Liberalizing Liquor Laws

Should Torontonians be able to buy themselves a beer after 2 a.m? Probably.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}Matthew M S{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr pool{/a}.

New Year’s Eve approaches. It’s the only night of the year when the powers-that-be let us unleash the inner boozehound and keep the merriment flowing until 3 a.m. But other places do it all year round.

When I was in London, England in the early 2000s, the liquor licensing laws were utterly bewildering to a drunk colonial. Regular pubs could serve drinks until 11 p.m., while certain theatre-district drinking establishments seemed to be open until midnight or so. If you wanted to brave the dance clubs, you could imbibe till the wee hours (although the cover charge would have paid for the flight home, and the likelihood of being bottled by some enthusiastic local yob grew as the evening waned).

This Great War-era labyrinth of regulation didn’t sit well in modern Britain, a nation where gin and steam engines once built and lost an empire. In 2003, the U.K. parliament streamlined the country’s licensing laws. Under the new rules (which took effect in 2005), establishments serving alcohol could sell booze 24/7, subject to license approval.

Other cities take a similarly open-minded approach. In New York City, drinks can be purchased until 4 a.m (and some bars will give you a refill again at 5 a.m., if you’re willing to wait). In Japan, China, and much of Europe, you can have a tipple any time of the day or night.

And then there’s Toronto. Here, of course, liquor licensing laws are provincially mandated. Last call was 1 a.m. until 1996, when Mike Harris’s Tory government threw purveyors and swillers of intoxicants a bone and extended service until 2 a.m.

So far, so good. But what about opening the doors a little longer?

The arguments against are well-known, and are usually made whenever a jurisdiction suggests later drinking hours. Opponents fear that later boozing will lead to more noise, hooliganism, and drunk driving—meaning less peace, order, and good government.

However, a case can be made for the exact opposite. In Toronto, longer service hours might actually mitigate the mayhem that stalks the Entertainment District after 2 a.m., when last-call laws cast clubgoers out on the streets en masse, ensuring maximum density of giggling miniskirts and the brawl-prone walking kegs of testosterone that compete for their affections. With longer hours, the detritus of Toronto’s club scene would drift out slowly—to vomit or be arrested—in dribs and drabs, rather than forming street-choking mobs.

Evidence from the U.K. supports this idea. In the first four months following the liberalization of drinking laws, serious violent crime fell by 21 per cent nationwide, and much more in some areas.

And the 1996 extension of drinking hours until 2 a.m. in Ontario didn’t generate any upsurge in crime or drunk driving.

Also, Toronto bar patrons have been allowed to stay up late for special occasions other than the New Year’s. The province has sometimes been magnanimous, letting bars get one-time off-hours licences for special events, like the World Cup or TIFF (the latter presumably because Hollywood types can be trusted to hold their liquor, as Lindsay Lohan said to Nick Nolte) without apparent deleterious side-effects.

And in the benefits column, later hours might also sell more beverages, tossing a few new tax dollars into the black hole of government deficits.

So what do you say, next premier of Ontario, whoever you are? Maybe it’s time that Toronto bar patrons got treated like grownups.


  • Kevin


  • David Toronto

    The “happy hour” experiment of the 1980s was a failure and

    led to a lot of drunk driving and accidents–not necessarily

    all from motoring. It prompted the step to make drunk driving

    a federal offence and took it away from the provinces.

    At least that was one good thing to come from Mulroney’s

    government and John Crosbie as Attorney General.

    Let’s hope that “happy hour” never comes back again.

    • Ryan Smith

      Happy hour has been legal for the almost six years now.

      3. Responsible drink price flexibility is permitted. A licensee may vary the purchase price of liquor as long as it remains above the minimum price, whether offered in combination with food, such as ‘wine with dinner’ or ‘beer with wings’, or for a specified time. For example, a licensee may offer a different price for a glass of wine provided with a certain meal on a regular basis, a different price for martinis on a certain day or a different price for domestic beers, house wine and bar shots during a certain period of a day as long as the cost of the liquor itself remains at or above the minimum price.

  • W. K. Lis

    Start by ending the Beer Store monopoly.

  • Erin

    If bar patrons would only act like adults. A 2 am cut off for serving means there are loud drunks still in the vicinity of bars until almost 3 am. Anyone living in the area cannot get a proper sleep and especially in summer with windows open. Closing at 2 am is plenty late.

    • Anonymous

      Depending on the neighbourhood, there are loud drunks from 10pm on.

      Extend the hours but make bars more responsible for their patrons.

    • Anonymous

      The drunks stay in the vicinity because they don’t want to go home yet. 2 am isn’t enough. By extending the hours, they would be inside bars and not on the streets until they would leave for home.

  • Treptower

    I’m sorry, but only other cities can handle later hours, happy hours and corner store sales. Only other cities. Not Toronto. Torontonians are ‘special’ and cannot be trusted with these freedoms. Toronto is ‘different’ from other cities. Whereas people in other cities can be treated as adults, people in Toronto must forever be treated like naughty teenagers. Just say no because Toronto is unique in its ‘specialness’. If you want to enjoy yourself, go to another city. We’ll have none of that nonsense here. THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!

  • Anonymous

    Three aspects of liberalization are key as they will improve people’s social experiences without significant negative side effects:

    1. Later last call or eliminating it altogether – so that people can have fun longer
    2. Sales of alcohol in ordinary stores – at least beer and wine to make it easier to entertain
    3. Lowering the drinking age to 18 – full rights for adults including the ability to go to any concert or show

    We should also ignore MADD Canada. They’ve long moved past their noble aim of reducing drunk driving towards prohibition era-like puritanical conservatism that’s unrealistic and out of touch. They’re more interested in scaring people than promoting responsible enjoyment.