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By Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 21 September 2010

Morgen David "Mad Dog" 20/20. Just one fortified wine varietal that may be gone from Downtown store shelves.

In what will be a first for the state, the Portland City Council last week approved a recommendation to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to restrict the sale of certain alcoholic beverages at stores.

If the OLCC approves the restrictions, portions of downtown and Old Town – excluding the Pearl District -- will no longer be allowed to sell some of the low-cost, high alcohol content staples of a street drinker's liquor cabinet. Fortified wine above 14 percent alcohol would be banned; malt beverages are only allowed if they are below 5.75 percent alcohol by volume and sold in 12 ounce six packs; and box wine will be noticeably absent from the shelves of grocery and convenience stores in the downtown core.
The effort attempted to voluntarily get stores to stop selling certain products, but supporters were not able to get full cooperation from businesses.
While the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the Portland Police and others who support the restrictions say it will help reduce the crimes related to street drinking, others say it's an attack on poor drinkers only.
"I have enough money to be able to drink at a table at a sidewalk café instead of 10 feet away in an illegal fashion," Old Town Resident David Owens told the Portland City Council. "This is clearly class-based."
Beer from small brewers in Oregon would be exempt from the malt beverage restrictions, as are bars and restaurants, and wine higher than 14 percent alcohol that is naturally fermented.
Perhaps the biggest caveat of all is the entire Pearl District. The restriction zone will include the entire downtown, roughly bordered by the freeways to the south, Vista Road to the west and Lovejoy to the north – except the Pearl. Stores in the Pearl and the Northwest Neighborhood will be free to sell whatever cheap hooch they want.
That said, there were very few drinking in public citations in the Pearl or Northwest districts in 2009 compared to the Old Town area – home to the majority of Portland's social service organizations.
Theresa Marchetti, director of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement's Liquor License Program, says the ordinance is targeted to the types of products most commonly used by street drinkers – many of whom she says are minors and others who are not homeless.
"There's quite a bit of affordable alcohol still available," she said.
But there remains some speculation as to whether restricting the sale of Mad Dog 20/20 and the like will have an impact on the kind of law breaking the restrictions target – namely public urination/defecation, theft, drinking in public violations and anti-social behavior by chronic inebriates.
Michael O'Callahan, who said he was testifing on behalf of alcoholics, laughed at city councilors during a hearing Sept. 15.
"I want to speak for the alcoholics," he said. "You guys think you're going to stop me from drinking?! How absurd!"
He said the city was looking in the wrong place for a solution. Instead, O'Callahan said they should focus their efforts on finding people housing and work.
"People need a place to go," he said. "People want to drink at home like we all do. Let 'em go home and drink."
Marchesi says she agrees that there are deeper social problems than just the Alcohol Impact Area addresses, but she hopes that the restrictions will eventually assist social service agencies in their missions. The Central City Concern – manager of a large number of affordable housing and social services in the downtown area -- issued a statement to The Skanner News that stated the agency typically supports this kind of regulation.
"Sale of these products negatively impacts the residents of neighborhoods where they're sold," said a representative of the Central City Concern.
Supporters studied similar laws in Washington, which supporters say have had a positive impact on public perception of crime and the types of problems associated with chronic alcoholism.
In Oregon, the only other Alcohol Impact Area to be proposed since the rule was made available by the OLCC in 1994 was in an area of inner Northeast Portland about 8 years ago, says Marchesi. The failed attempt was lead by a group of district attorneys from about 2001 to 2004.
Truth and Justice for All Director A.L. "Skip" Osborne says the restrictions then and the restrictions now are clearly an affront to the poor.
"It was a gentrification issue," he told The Skanner News about the effort in Northeast Portland. "I see more alcohol-related crime committed by people of means than the poor. … Poor people don't have cars."

Changed Wording
Testimony from a number of business leaders and representatives lead to the council's adoption of language that excluded a good number of "fortified" wines that the police say are not part of the problem of street drinking. Marchesi said that her research did not put her in touch with wineries or the representatives of major grocery chains such as Safeway that complained the ordinance excluded the sales of vermouth, sherry, and port, among others.
Joe Gilliam, representative of the NW Grocer's Assocation, recommended that the city council exclude wines from the restrictions altogether, as they only made up 10 percent of drinking in public incidents. He specifically mentioned bladder-in-box wines, which are consumed by many a law-abiding citizen looking to save money on single bottles.
There was also concern that it would be difficult to discern wines that are naturally fermented and wines that are artificially boosted with spirits.
The issue will now go forth to the OLCC. The agency will hold hearings for grocery store owners and other stakeholders and then the public, according to an OLCC spokesperson, before the agency changes, approves or rejects the proposal.

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