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In the Doghouse

4 A.M. Bar Bill Plays CA for Fools

With Dirty Tricks and Deceit, Sen. Wiener and Allies Sneak SB 384 Through Committee

scott wiener looks tired because skullduggery is exhaustingThis is what it takes to shove an ugly bill through the California Assembly GO Committee:

  • engage in back-office sessions to create over a dozen hackneyed amendments to distract from official analyses revealing all the weaknesses of your bill.
  • throw ethics and responsible governance aside by changing the bill at the last minute, and voting on it before those changes can be seen by the public.
  • schedule a vote for the day after a national holiday, hoping your critics will be too tired to show up and oppose it.
  • ignore and distorting over 40 years of global, peer-reviewed public health research on the harms of your bill.
  • value the desires of lobbyists and industry players over the lives and health of your constituents.

On July 5th, supporters of SB 384—State Senator Scott Wiener’s bill to allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m.—passed the bill from committee. They did so despite a long line of local government, public health, law enforcement, and addiction services professionals speaking out against it. None of the other bills up for vote faced even a tenth of the opposition; none threaten to ramp up the levels of alcohol-induced harm and death the way SB 384 one does.

Senator Wiener and his allies should be ashamed. Extending last call times increases drinkers’ overall consumption, it adds fatigue to dangerous driving, and worst, it lets cities avoid responsibility for their own worst decisions. Its proponents extolled the “local control” aspects of the bill, but urban 4 a.m. entertainment zones will emanate dangerously intoxicated drivers into the surrounding suburbs. The city gets the tax revenue while the outlying communities get to scrub the blood off the highway.

When introducing his arguments, the Senator indicated that he knew the pain of dangerous driving first-hand, having lost an aunt in a DUI crash when he was 6 years old. Yet he immediately dismissed over 40 years of peer-reviewed medical research from multiple countries showing that last-call times affect automotive deaths. Instead, he brandished his own "study," one of such appalling quality—among other issues, he claims it "shows there is no correlation between last-call times and fatal accidents" when it makes no effort to show what happens when a state changes its last-call times*—that trying to publish it would end a scientist's career. Lucky for him, he is in politics; this is less lucky for the real lives that could be lost from this policy.

Worse, Senator Wiener and the Committee need to be held accountable for why it was necessary to unleash a flood of amendments up until the minute the bill was voted upon. The text of those amendments was not released to the public, leaving the open discussion one of shrugs and question marks. The people of California spoke out explicitly against this sort of legislative double-dealing when they voted for Prop 54, which requires that legislative bills be viewable by the public before they are passed. But since this only moved SB 384 out of committee, not onto the Assembly as a whole, Wiener felt he could ignore the spirit of transparency in favor of expedience. The sheer number of amendments, the rush job, and the cover-of-darkness nature of the hearing all suggest this bill could prove very unpopular.

The question is, will the problems be evident before the early morning wreckage mounts? After all, the bill can still be stopped in Assembly Appropriations, the general Assembly, or on the Governor’s desk. It could even be pulled by Senator Wiener, should he come to his senses. After all, either he feels pangs of regrets now for failing his voters, or feels those pangs in a couple years… for getting them killed.

*Note for our wonkier readers: Wiener's non-study "study" not only does not disprove correlation, it does not even include a correlation statistic. It is just an Excel spreadsheet with a cross-sectional presentation of different fatal crash rates in different states, and their last-call times. Not only does there seem to have been no effort to do a true causal analysis, there wasn't any analysis of any kind performed; we have no idea what the rates could be confounded by, nor what happens when you look at other indicators of alcohol harm and motor vehicle crashes. The data are not even sourced; while we like to think Sen. Wiener has the dignity to not actually make things up out of whole cloth, dignity certainly has not stopped him from exploiting the dead.

READ MORE about the hazards of extended last call times.


Synthetic Alcohol's Pint of Utopia Masks Liters of Warning Signs

Like having your brains bashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brickis no such thing as a free three-martini lunch. That, however, is the goal of a new strain of lab-made liquor, termed “Alcosynth,” according to a report published by according to a report published by Drink Sector, an industry analysis firm. Alcosynth creator Dr. David Nutt claims the drug has all the pleasant inebriation of alcohol without the hangover—or the physiological damage from long-term use. It almost seems to good to be true.

In fact, any ability to test or rebut Dr. Nutt's claim runs afoul of his lab's reluctance to share any details of the compound, citing pending patent applications. But there are some basic problems with the idea that an alcohol-without-drawbacks is a reasonable goal. Certainly, it would be better and more humane if those who engage in dangerous levels of drinking were less likely to suffer for their decisions. The problem is, those decisions still carry substantial risks that alcosynth does not seem able to rectify.

First and last, the goal for the drug is to mimic the acute intoxication of alcohol. It is important to note that hangovers and chronic liver disease are the results of heavy use, and by setting its sights on those symptoms, alcosynth explicitly lauds those patterns and turns a blind eye to the fact that patterns of overdrinking are as much deliberate creations of the alcohol industry as they are personal choices. Even if the physiological damage is avoided, using a "safe alcohol" at levels that would otherwise cause a hangover puts into play all of the compromised decision-making—including hazardous driving, violence, risky sexual behavior, and vulnerability to crime. Moreover, as LiveScience reports, nothing at all is known about whether alcosynth can cause dependency, nor whether the physical withdrawal symptoms would approximate alcohol's.

Dr. Nutt told the BBC that he had previously experimented with benzodiazepines, but now says he has moved on from there to other drug classes. This raises a very real specter: of alcosynth not replacing alcohol, but being combined with it. Many non-alcohol psychoactive drugs whose effects overlap with those of booze—including benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Klonopin) and GHB—have disastrous effects when combined with alcohol. These effects include blackouts and incapacitation, leading some to gain a reputation as "date rape drugs". This is not to say that alcosynth will be inevitably used for this purpose; rather, it's to suggest that an unregulated sibling drug to alcohol leaves plenty of room for misuse and abuse.

The idea that the physical harms from a dangerous drug can be totally evaded through unrestricted sale of a rival drug is quite au currant. As Dr. Scott Edwards, an addiction specialist at Louisiana State University Health Science Center, notes the similarities between the alcosynth "secret formula" and e-cigarettes. Like alcosynth, e-cigarettes major marketing pitch is the ability for smokers to maintain a nicotine addiction without being subject to the tragic long-term consequences. Yet the actual long-term knowledge of e-cigarettes' long-term safety is little. On top of this, the tobacco industries have jumped on board, both launching their own e-cigarette brands and promoting "dual use," wherein e-cigarettes are used to cut down on smoking without having to quit. Were alcosynth to gain a significant economic foothold as a legal toxicant, there is no question Big Alcohol would move quickly to use it to augment, not supplant, their product.

Perhaps that could be alcosynth's long-term contribution to the human race: a medicine to ease the transition to sobriety for problem drinkers. To simply throw it onto store shelves, however, is to ignore a century of understanding of how the recreational drug industry works. If we are smart enough to make a hangover-free alcohol, we should be smart enough to understand how it can hurt us just the same.


CT's Automatic Liquor Machines Are a Kid's Best Drinking Buddy

The EtOHAL9000 automatic alcohol dispenserPut a quarter in, get drunk. What could possibly go wrong? On April 12th, the Connecticut State House of Representatives asked that question when they overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing automated beer and wine dispensers. The devices, which operate off a prepaid card, strip away the face-to-face element of alcohol sales. This interaction provides an important firewall for firewater, both in terms of verifying the patron’s age and in applying bartender’s judgment as to whether the patron can responsibly handle another drink. The machine doesn’t care, as long as there’s money on the card.

Worse, this is a slap in the face to one of Connecticut’s lasting contributions to public health. In 1998, the town of Orange, CT, passed an ordnance banning cigarette vending machines in the town. Despite the modest scope of the bill—banning ALL cigarette machines in town meant banning THE cigarette machine in town—the ordnance was challenged in superior court and overturned. The state rallied behind the town, and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal got the ban reinstated, clearing the way for local jurisdictions across CT and the U.S. to enact similar bans.

The two central arguments to rejecting the ban have easy parallels in justifications for today’s booze bots. First, lawyers for the vending machine distributor argued that remote locking would allow attendants to verify age. Second, the machines only reflected a small portion of total cigarette sales. But Connecticut State Department of Mental Health surveys at the time showed that 40% of underage smokers bought from the machines, and 6 out of every 10 attempts to use the machines were successful. There is no doubt the unmanned, unmonitored nature of the new automated booze machines make them highly attractive to underage drinkers. And by increasing the rate by which alcohol is distributed in a bar, they absolutely raise the pressure on the servers and bouncers, just begging for them to make a mistake.

These machines also represent a major loss of opportunity to build a new set of safeties in the alcohol market. Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) trainings bolster bartenders’ skills in judging when it becomes unsafe to serve a particular customer, as well as how to de-escalate tense situations and ensure the overall safety of the bar. By increasing the client-load without increasing the number of employees, these machines automatically undermine the ability of a skilled bartender to become a health advocate and look out for their safety and that of their patrons.

Of course, the Connecticut legislature and the makers of the Halcohol 9000 do not need to worry about it. They are far away from the alcohol service. The device encourages the same kind of distance between monitoring and access that put cigarettes in kids’ hands. Moreover, it spits on the triumphs of their predecessors.