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Time For Canada to Shake its Prohibition Hangover

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Eighty-five years ago today, prohibition was repealed in Ontario. The era of bootleggers and speakeasies was replaced with government-managed liquor distribution and gender-segregated bars. While Friday marks the formal repeal of prohibition, prohibitionary policies didn't disappear instantly. They waned over time but have not been completely eradicated. Ontario has plenty of quasi-prohibitionary policies still, and scarcely a month passes without proposals to move further toward prohibition. It shouldn't just worry drinkers: the nanny state seeks to limit fun in all of its forms.

Several vestiges of prohibition remain in Ontario. The most notable is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). Set up as a crown corporation to transition the province out of prohibition, the LCBO still has a monopoly on the distribution of liquor in Ontario.

The LCBO has a mandate to keep prices at "socially responsible" (read: high) levels, and it keeps extremely restrictive store hours. No LCBO location is open past 11 p.m. It means that Ontario has de facto prohibition for at least 77 hours per week (63 including bar sales). Contrast this with Saskatchewan, where it is possible to purchase alcohol at licensed hotels and brewpubs until 3 a.m., or New York State, where beer can be purchased at convenience stores 24 hours per day. It's unclear why we need a government liquor store to decide when we can't buy liquor.

The Beer Store is another prohibition-era hangover. It is owned and operated by Labatt and Molson (which are now owned by InBev and Interbrew), and has a monopoly on beer sales (excluding sales at the LCBO). Unlike the LCBO, the Beer Store does not have a mandate to keep prices high. But as a monopoly, it has no reason not to. It does abide by minimum price levels, which the government continually raises. The Beer Store monopoly is baffling. The justification for the LCBO is that it generates revenue for the government (albeit, less than would be generated under a private system). There is no reasonable justification offered for the continued monopoly of the now foreign-owned Beer Store.

Like most jurisdictions, Ontario has mandatory bar opening and closing times. Ontario bars are not permitted to serve alcohol before 11 a.m. and after 2 a.m. The justification for closing times is that if bars were allowed to stay open all night, chaos would reign in the streets. Productivity would sag since people would routinely be hung over, and perhaps start the day with a beverage.

Of course, this is pure nonsense. In some jurisdictions, such as parts of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, there are no mandatory bar closing times, and they are very productive. A recent Boston Globe editorial cautioned that its city may even lose productivity, since young workers factor night life into their decision where to locate. Who wants to move to sleepy Boston (or Toronto) when they can move to New York with a 4 a.m. closing time? There is no good reason why Ontario bars should not be able to stay open at least that late -- as some Toronto bars can during Pride and TIFF.

Some governments are constantly exploring new ways to curtail drinking. The next frontier is a potential ban on drinks mixing alcohol and caffeine. New York State recently banned such drinks after deaths tied to consumption of one such drink, Four Loko. Unfortunately for the proponents of this approach, people are clever enough to have figured out that alcoholic and caffeinated beverages can be mixed at the point of consumption. Red Bull/vodka, Jagger-bombs, and coffee and Bailey's are all extremely popular. Since the government isn't going to ban caffeine any time soon, this approach will have no effect. But every new prohibitionary law emboldens social engineers.

Ontario's liquor prices are several times higher than some neighbouring jurisdictions. The selection of craft beer and wine is highly restricted. Its bars close earlier. Happy Hour is illegal. Even for those who rarely drink, it should be troubling. The nanny statists also seek to prevent people from indulging in some of their favourite foods, smoking in their own homes and vehicles, and exercising without specified protective gear. This creeping regulation of everyday life in the name of health and safety doesn't only threaten to make our lives less enjoyable. It will also require a dramatic expansion of our health and safety bureaucracy.

It's time to end the War on Fun. Curtailing quasi-prohibitionary liquor policies is the place to start.