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Conservatives’ impaired approach to Ontario’s liquor laws | Jerry Levitan

Monday, August 24, 2020 @ 12:02 PM | By Jerry Levitan

Jerry Levitan %>
Jerry Levitan
Ontario’s liquor policy has sputtered rather than evolved since the post-Prohibition era depending on the government of the day, erupting issues and political considerations. Comparatively and in the relative scheme of things, it did not take that long for a licensing regime to be implemented for the sale and distribution of cannabis. Both substances alter behaviour and cognitive ability. But cannabis, I suppose, is deemed different given that you cannot, as of yet, order a joint or two with your wings and cause problems.

The Liquor Licence Act and its Regulations governs, among many other things, how an establishment obtains a liquor licence, how those licences can change (greater capacity, additional areas, etc.), public interest considerations and participation in the licensing process and those many things an operator must adhere to, the least of which are prevention of intoxication and not selling or serving to minors.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) is the statutory body that administers the licensing process and enforcement of the Act and Regulations. Given the ongoing waves of changes over the decades and now the COVID-19 tsunami, the AGCO has handled changes in legislation and policy admirably. In breathtaking speed, the AGCO adapted emergency changes since March to facilitate help to operators and consumers such as expanded patio service, takeout and delivery of alcohol.

But the central questions ought to be what are the prime objectives of government policy in relation to liquor laws and what should those objectives be. Ancillary to these questions is once liberalization of laws occurs can the government reimpose restrictions relating to behaviour without substantial backlash and run the risk of exposing legal authority to disrespect and thereby undermine confidence in the legal system.

The hospitality industry, decimated by COVID-19, is convulsing to try and adapt to the spasmodic and sputtering “loosening” of regulations by the Conservatives, the AGCO and municipalities. Permitting delivery of alcohol. “Temporary” patios on and abutting streets. Tailgate parties for the enjoyment of sports fans attending games that are no longer exhibited due to the pandemic. Marginal and selective permissions for some retail stores to sell alcohol. Passing the buck to municipalities to regulate consumption of alcohol in parks which have largely avoided the issue. Reflect on that restriction while smoking a joint in a park.

In an emergency, sale and consumption of alcohol has been deemed of social importance which belies the fact that the moralistic Ontario of old should not impose behavioural restrictions that no longer make sense.

Let’s face it, in the lockdown and post-lockdown world, greater sensitivity will be required to accommodate the public in their leisurely pursuits. Rather than focus on restrictions of use, government policy should aim its legislation at measures that mitigate and respond to irresponsible service and consumption of alcohol rather than restricting individual choice or access to alcohol in a world that is more pressured and confusing than ever. The selling and purchasing of tobacco is readily available with restrictions.

The selling and purchasing of cannabis is increasing rapidly with restrictions. Why should the selling and purchasing of alcohol not be readily accessible with restrictions as opposed to limiting those sales to selective retailers? Why should people not be allowed to consume alcohol responsibly in a park? A major review of the Liquor Licence Act and its Regulations is in order that focuses on broadening of consumer accessibility and removing archaic prohibitions while at the same time enhancing disciplinary measures and enforcement for breaches to protect the public and individuals from reckless, excessive and deleterious conduct.

If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that some people will act irresponsibly. If people do not wear masks in public, they should not be allowed to enter buildings, enclosures and stores. If they do, they should be punished. But the broad public that does respect the interests and health of others, the vast majority, should not have their lives restricted unnecessarily. The same standard or conduct should be applied to the sale and service of alcohol.

In the Great Transition, legislators and implementors will need to focus on enhancing the quality of lives of people and regulate behaviour that in fact causes social harm. The public will increasingly not have patience for laws and regulations that do not make sense. This will be the challenge for governments in the years to come. Doug Ford let the genie out for a peek. Once liberated it will be difficult to put him back in the bottle.

Jerry Levitan is a Toronto lawyer who practised litigation, administrative and liquor licensing law. He as well is the producer of the Academy Award nominated and Emmy winning short animated film I Met The Walrus about the day he spent at age 14 with John Lennon and author of the Canadian bestselling book with the same title.

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