Viewpoint: Time to Rethink the OLCC

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The OLCC was created by the Oregon Legislative Assembly in 1933 — literally days after the repeal of Prohibition.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) is truly a Prohibition-era relic.

You will often hear that in the news, from commentators and editorialists to politicians and talking heads. But what you might not know is — they are serious.

The OLCC was created by the Oregon Legislative Assembly in 1933 — literally days after the repeal of Prohibition.

Prohibition in the U.S., otherwise known as national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol, began in 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was in place from 1920 to 1933, being repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. The public realized that the liquor ban had essentially caused a vast spread in organized crime and the solidification of the American Mafia.

Despite this fact, the OLCC was created by the Oregon Legislative Assembly in 1933 — literally days after the repeal of Prohibition. The idea was, instead of having the American Mafia have a monopoly on liquor, the Oregon government would — so how could anything go wrong?

But things have gone wrong. The history of the OLCC in the last decade is honestly an embarrassment to the State of Oregon. In 2005 and prior, the OLCC was repeatedly accused of racism. In 2006, Teresa Kaiser, the director of the OLCC, resigned after being arrested for drunk driving. After resigning, Kaiser said, “I am confident the commission will move forward.”

And the commission certainly did move forward. Right into another scandal, when the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service discovered the OLCC had employed a Bulgarian national, Doitchin Krastev, for eight years. Krastev used the Social Security number of a boy who was murdered in Ohio in 1982.

The OLCC requires all alcohol servers to check the IDs of customers who order alcohol. But apparently the OLCC does not know how to check the identity of its own employees. That was the question the Bend Bulletin asked in 2010 — “how he was hired by the OLCC, which routinely conducts background checks on liquor license applicants, club owners, bartenders and other servers of alcohol.”

Krastev, then known as “Jason Evers,” was supposedly a “rising star” — but it seems rising stars at the OLCC are people whose employment careers have “been clouded by questions about [their] credibility,” on account of continually accusing bars falsely of misconduct. Even though, in 2006, the OLCC hired an independent investigator to look into Evers’ actions in the false accusion cases, and even though the investigator discovered the evidence in both cases contradicted both Evers’ written reports and his testimony at an administrative hearing, the OLCC did nothing.

Well, not nothing. His punishment was a promotion. “Evers was later promoted from an inspector to regional manager over a territory that includes Crook, Deschutes, Jefferson and Wheeler counties.”

Fast forward to today. Today the chair of the OLCC is accusing the director of the OLCC of preferring “to operate without public input or transparency,” to the point that an Oregon senator is saying that, “This is an agency that is 100 percent unaccountable. They’ll do whatever it takes to protect their fiefdom.” And to make matters worse, “A lobbyist for Northwest grocers touched off what could be the next round of liquor wars in Oregon on Thursday, telling state lawmakers that if they don’t liberalize alcohol laws the next step will be an initiative to privatize the entire system.” This is the same lobbyist who worked with Costco and other big grocery chains to get Washington to eliminate its government monopoly on liquor last year.

To be fair: the OLCC is trying to modernize. They recently made a smartphone app. So that’s progress, right?

Oregon, it is time to rethink our relationship with the OLCC.

Oregon is “one of a dwindling number of states where the government exerts near dictatorial control over an alcohol system designed 80 years ago to prevent the likes of Al Capone from horning in on the trade.” For a state that takes public pride in its public perception as a “progressive” place to live, this strange obsession with centralized liquor control seems out of place. At a time when residents are clamoring for the legalization of marijuana, residents are still going to hour-limited, state-run liquor stores to buy alcohol. And businesses are still paying huge fines to a government monopoly that only recently had the idea that, instead of just fines, maybe “we need to be out and educating folks in the communities in the different places that we’re doing the checks, and explaining to them a little bit better about how we need to check ID.”

You think?

There’s also a serious disconnect between the OLCC and the public. Recently, the now-chair of the OLCC Cassandra Skinner Lopata has said, “What’s interesting is the OLCC has done such a good job of preventing the abuses that came up during Prohibition.” The abuses, according to Skinner Lopata? Blindness and paralysis.

This disconnect was best expressed recently by Brendan Monaghan at OregonLive:

“Oregonians pride themselves as living in a modern, progressive state; however, as The Oregonian recently reported, words like ‘abuses,’ ‘evils’ and ‘morals’ are still the written basis of our state’s alcohol laws. OLCC Chairwoman Cassandra SkinnerLopata, presumably with a straight face, recently cited the rampant social ills of blindness and counterfeit liquor in such far-flung and discordant locales as Louisiana and India as a prime reason for keeping her regulatory relic.”

I frankly don’t understand this. The only reason I can see for having centralized control of liquor would be to ensure that people consume liquor safely. And yet the numbers show this reason does not bear weight. As of this year, there are 18 states known as “alcoholic beverage control” (ABC) states. 3 of these states — Montana, Mississippi, and Wyoming — are 3 of top 5 states with the worst drunk driving statistics.

There is clearly, then, no correlation between ABC states and protection from alcohol-related accidents. And even non-government organizations acknowledge this. Misty Morse, a spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, when discussing the worst states for drunk driving, mentioned that there are a few key laws that make a real difference. She said, “We’ve found that when convicted drunken drivers are given a short, hard license suspension with a longer period of time where they cannot drive without breathing into an interlock, the state’s drunken driving fatalities are lower.”

Notice that centralized liquor control does not make a key difference.

The OLCC does not even make a key difference when it comes to preventing underage drinking. The minor decoy operations are a joke. In 2011, the OLCC spent one day — yes, you read that right — one day investigating Eugene businesses. According to OLCC reports, they visited 14 stores in Eugene. On one day. In the entirety of 2011.

Granted, the OLCC visited just about every city in Oregon. But for one day each? And just a handful of stores in each place? What kind of real enforcement is that? I could visit 14 stores in Eugene in an hour. By foot.

And granted, the OLCC has limited resources. But apparently they need to focus their energy on the sale of liquor rather than protecting the residents of Oregon. Or as Jim West at Mucho Gusto said recently, after failing to pass a sting merely because his employee miscalculated a decoy’s birthdate by a year, “I wish they would focus their limited resources on the more problematic spaces that create the real tragedies.”

In these economic times, it makes little sense to allow a state monopoly on liquor. Money would be better invested in actually enforcing the liquor laws, taking sting operations seriously, and truly emphasizing the power of education when it comes to serving alcohol responsibly.

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