Newsflash: in Ontario, it’s illegal to get drunk in a bar.
Now, crackdowns by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) are leading to a dramatic increase in the number of establishments having their licences suspended for over-service and permitting intoxication.
“How can a person have fun in a bar anymore if you’re not allowed to get drunk?” asks Out Productions’ Doug Muir.
And yet, bartenders are left to explain that to the public.
“The only thing we can say is we explain to them is, ‘Yes it is true,'” says Kelly Brant, owner of the Lookout. “You’re not allowed to be drunk in a bar because we’re responsible for what happens to you. So that’s what we say, and honestly it shocks people. They just don’t understand at all.”
What may not be apparent is some of the pressure that the AGCO itself faces, especially after high-profile incidents like at Lake Joseph, where four young adults were served 31 drinks over the space of three hours. Three of them drowned after their car wound up in a nearby river.
“The Lake Joseph incident is an example,” says Lisa Murray, public relations officer at the AGCO. “People say ‘Oh yeah, so what? People get drunk at bars.’ Yeah, until they get into their cars and go kill themselves or kill somebody else. Unfortunately, it happens all too often, and then people say to us ‘Well, why didn’t you do more, and why aren’t you doing more?'”
A new system of monetary penalties took effect Jan 1, where bar owners are fined for minor infractions rather than facing license suspensions. However, over-service is one of the infractions that still leads to a licence suspension, along with serving minors and permitting narcotics on the premises.
But some local bar owners feel that licence suspension is heavy-handed, likening it to having one’s drivers licence revoked after going a kilometre over the speed limit.
“If you have 800 people in your bar, and one guy looks intoxicated, they’ll shut the whole bar down for 18 days,” says a spokesperson for Grace O’Malley’s West. “Basically, the gist of what we’re trying to resolve is have the penalty fit the crime, within reason.”
Grace O’Malley’s is part of a group of bar owners interested in forming a committee to lobby the AGCO to re-evaluate the way intoxication violations are handled, which could mean making it a finable offence rather than an automatic suspension.
“The reason we’re looking at fines are, if you want to penalise the bar, why penalize the cooks and the busboys?” the O’Malley’s spokesperson says. “With closures, you hurt the owners, and the 85 people you have working for you, which doesn’t make much sense. And then you potentially could close a bar. The ripple effect of that could be astronomical as far as job losses go.”
Another complaint the committee hopes to address is the fact that there is no standard by which a liquor inspector can say that a person is intoxicated.
“I might think that this guy is drunk and you might not, so it’s the opinion of this one inspector,” Brant says. “There’s no test — if you’re pulled over for drinking and driving, there’s an actual test — a machine that tells you.”
“We’ve seen charges from ‘dancing erratically,’ to ‘blood-shot eyes,’ to ‘looks drunk.’ From across a dark nightclub room, maybe 80 feet, that person looks drunk,” O’Malley’s spokesperson says. “What a lot of people don’t know is that they don’t need proof. They can go under suspicion and charge you and find you guilty. They don’t need witnesses or proof.”
Because charges are often laid a day or two after an incident, bar owners have no way of challenging them as they don’t know who may have been dancing erratically or if that person was indeed intoxicated.
“It’s not like our legal system — they have their own legal system and for some reason they have total control.”
Brant thinks that the committee is a good idea, and hopes that they can work with the ACGO to provide a standard that all bar owners and inspectors can appreciate.
“Hopefully we’ll get through the growing pains,” Brant says. “People are going to start staying home and that’s not good for business.”