Public Works: Liberalizing Liquor Laws
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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.