Ever since the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s, our civic institutions have tiptoed through conflicting views about alcohol use. Prohibition, a draconian response to alcohol’s societal ills, fell victim to an overwhelming market force; simply put, a lot of people like to imbibe.
Since then, regulations have aimed at accommodating alcohol’s consumption while limiting its costs to society. The production, sale and distribution of alcohol also is a major economic force in the Yakima Valley; hops for beer have been grown in the Valley for more than a century, and the rise of the wine industry in the past 30 years has been a local economic success story.
Thus, the dichotomy: As the Washington Legislature works this session on tightening DUI laws in the wake of horrific traffic deaths in Western Washington, it also has loosened up restrictions in other areas. By and large, the changes make sense.
Gov. Jay Inslee has signed two bills aimed at underage drinkers, but in very different ways. One addresses those who are taking part in a culinary or alcohol-technology degree program, such as those offered at Yakima Valley Community College and Central Washington University. It allows students who are 18 or over to taste alcohol and then spit it out; an adult faculty or staff member must supervise the tasting.
A second law allows those under 21 to call for medical help for an intoxicated friend without facing minor-in-possession-of-alcohol charges — either for the caller or the friend. Washington is now one of 12 states with “good Samaritan” laws. A similar law covering drug overdoses already is on the books in this state and has been deemed a success.
Inslee also has signed bills aimed at targeted alcohol consumers. One allows movie theaters to sell beer, wine and hard liquor if they pay a fee and with certain limitations; for example, theaters can hold no more than 120 seats and must provide tabletops at the seats, such as at downtown Yakima’s Orion Cinema.
Another bill expands a pilot program that permitted wineries and microbreweries to offer samples in 10 farmers markets; the measure makes the program permanent and increases the number of qualifying markets. Inslee also has signed a bill that allows businesses that sell hard liquor to offer small samples on site.
The city of Yakima also has loosened up rules on the issue. Last month, the City Council voted 6-1 to allow alcohol consumption at special events in city parks. The bill will allow beer and wine to be served at events like the Yakima Folklife Festival at Franklin Park. Event organizers are to serve the drinks in separate areas — think beer and wine gardens — and enforce state laws. Organizers also need to get a special event permit from the city and a permit from the state Liquor Control Board.
Taken together, these bills don’t amount to a massive expansion of liquor availability that will endanger public safety. They carry built-in restrictions designed to limit overconsumption and abuse.
The new laws do reflect a more relaxed sales environment after voter approval in 2011 of Initiative 1183, which took sales of hard liquor out of state-run stores and into large retailers like supermarkets. The bills also enable controlled consumption in limited settings, can help the bottom line of sponsoring businesses and nonprofits, and improve marketing and educational opportunities for producers of Yakima Valley products. These are sensible, responsible alterations to our state’s ever-changing alcohol laws.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.