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Forget marijuana, let's focus on reforming B.C.'s ancient liquor laws

As former justice ministers, mayors, academics and health officials rally around ending the prohibition on marijuana, I have another idea.

Let's take a shot at fixing the archaic and inane regulation and distribution of alcohol in the province. No, I'm not advocating for more alcohol consumption, and yes, I think drinking any amount of alcohol and getting behind the wheel is a bad idea.

But the perverse rules for liquor have to change. There is the well-publicized case of the Rio Theatre in East Vancouver.

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If you're familiar with the intersection where the theatre is located, you'll know that a pre-movie drink is not the area's primary substance-abuse problem.

Corrine Lea, who has run the theatre for 3 ½ years, fought a long, difficult battle for the right to serve liquor during live events. She finally got a liquor license – but one that prohibited her from showing movies, which made up the bulk of the theatre's programming.

So if you went to see a band at the Rio, you could have a drink. But suddenly the theatre was prohibited from showing, say, a documentary about the same band.

No more movies.

Not to worry. Rich Coleman, one day after Liquor was added to his Energy and Mines portfolio, swooped in with a fix. The Rio could still run movies and serve liquor at live events, providing the days and hours of service were approved in advance by the province. That's not easy to do when you run a venue that features rock-and-roll bands married to tight touring schedules, and movies whose release dates are determined by distributors.

The province says once the Rio sets its schedule, it can apply separately to have that schedule altered. Mr. Coleman suggests that could be as simple as an e-mail 24 or 48 hours before the event.

The changes to the liquor regulations have had consequences elsewhere.

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Late this week, the Vancouver International Film Centre was trying to make sense of a densely worded and bureaucratically coded letter it received from the province informing management that Special Occasion Licences would no longer be granted for film or broadcast screenings.

The theatre – which generally shows art films as opposed to mindless wide-release blockbusters – has a permanent licence to serve beer and wine in advance of regular screenings, but groups who rent the centre for special events, operating under the so-called SOL, may be, ahem, out of luck.

There are also confusing instructions about when and where minors may attend events at the theatre and how close they might be allowed to get to the bar.

God forbid anyone under the age of 19 should witness a parent or guardian sipping a glass of pinot gris before a festival screening of Satyricon.

Keep in mind, this rampant disregard for temperance is occurring two blocks away from the Granville Entertainment District, where beer-soaked club patrons regularly brawl in the street.

A few blocks in the other direction, there are two sports arenas, where fans chug over-priced brew with little regard for the face-painted toddlers sitting beside them. I have been to one hockey game at Rogers Arena in the past decade. My only lasting impression is that we were surrounded by very drunk men who broke into red-faced screams any time a fight erupted on the ice below.

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Beyond the theatres, the clubs and events venues, there are the restaurants whose "food primary" licences demand they not sell more liquor than food on any given night. They take this seriously, knowing inspectors could demand their cash-register tapes at any time.

There are the patio rules. There is the retail end, dominated by the government-owned Liquor Distribution Branches, which are, for the most part, about as sexy as they sound. One wonders what a dispensary might look like if the dream of government-controlled marijuana ever came true.

Yes, there are some private beer and wine stores – but the distribution and pricing of products is still under the control of the LDB.

All of this regulation is necessary, we're told, to ensure public safety. However meritorious the notion of protecting the public from fans intoxicated by pinot noir, and Fellini retrospectives, there are slightly more pressing issues.

Vancouver has the largest open drug market in the country. Drug gangs are shooting each other in the streets – and restaurants – for control of turf. Teenagers are dropping dead because of ecstasy. I have a hard time believing a drink before a movie is really the problem.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 88.1 FM and 690 AM.

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