Losing the Alkie 500

Shortly before 2:30 a.m. every Friday and Saturday night (and for some people, Sunday through Thursday, as well) a race begins all over Portland. There is no official starting line, but the finish line is every grocery and convenience store with late-night hours of operation. The prize for finishing is being able to purchase alcohol before the state-mandated 2:30 cutoff time. Some of the racers are in no condition to be on the road, but they are usually the most motivated and therefore the most likely to finish fastest, if they finish at all. It’s not much of a spectator sport. The participants are the only people really enthusiastic about it, and the spectators are mostly the beleaguered clerks having to listen to high-octane whining from customers who made it in the door at 2:31.

Earlier in the evening, race fans, you can tune in to the Barbur Grand Prix. In Oregon, you can’t buy hard liquor in grocery stores. You have to go to licensed liquor stores, the downtown iterations of which close at 7 p.m. However, the Barbur Liquor Store, many a PSU student’s best friend, stays open until 10 p.m. If you leave campus at 9:50 and keep the pedal to the floor all the way there, you can just make it. Adding an element of suspense is the fact that Barbur Boulevard is a very well-patrolled stretch of road, with many turnoffs that are ideal for concealing a cop car.

The wacky-law list goes on. Bars, clubs and restaurants can only serve alcohol until 2 a.m., half an hour before grocery and convenience stores. Even the most expensive hotel room in Portland doesn’t come with a mini-bar, because that could conceivably be “providing alcohol after 2 a.m.” How the specific times were settled on is beyond me, but the bar cutoff has the dubious benefit of putting all the hardcore drinkers out on the street at the same time. This is a good time not to be on the road if you’re just coming home from a late-night knitting circle.

Oregon has the most ludicrous liquor laws this side of Utah, even though our state has a lot fewer Mormons. What we do have is the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, an organization so socially conservative it makes John Ashcroft look like Larry Flynt by comparison. (Actually, they do look kind of similar, but you know what I mean.) Confounding those who thought it was repealed in 1933, Prohibition is alive and well here, but only at regularly scheduled hours during the night.

Out-of-state students coming to Oregon for the first time are inevitably baffled by these regulations, and by how early downtown nightlife tends to die out. I discovered the reason for their bemusement the first time I visited California, in 2001. In Cali, hard alcohol is sold in pretty much all the same stores that sell beer, and you can buy it whenever the store is open. If it’s a 24-hour convenience store, then voila, it’s a 24-hour liquor store. I went south again last year and was again reminded of how silly things are in Oregon. As a souvenir, I saved a half-gallon plastic bottle of Albertson’s store-brand vodka. It tasted similar to our local HRD (Hood River Death), and it came highly recommended by the little-old-lady cashier at the Albertson’s in Indio, Calif., who enthusiastically told me that “the hangover’s the same with the expensive stuff!” By the way, according to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Web site, 40 percent of all traffic fatalities in California last year were alcohol-related. In Oregon, with its various OLCC restrictions, the figure was 41 percent.

It makes sense to have harsh punishments for situations in which harm is done to others, which is why we have such strict laws against driving or operating heavy machinery while intoxicated. Drunken drivers are easily identifiable as a danger to the general populace, as well as to themselves. As for operators of heavy machinery, well … I don’t think there are too many crane operators showing up to work plastered, but if there were, I would be a lot more hesitant about walking past construction sites.

So we have the prosecution of people who do harm to others pretty well covered by our current legal system, but the state has no business trying to regulate when and where people can engage in activities that are potentially damaging only to themselves. Taking this victim-vs.-victimless crime model to its most extreme, prosecuting people for committing murders has always been an excellent idea. Prosecuting people for committing suicide, on the other hand, wouldn’t make any sense, even if you don’t take into account the inevitable difficulty of getting defendants to appear in court.

All bureaucratic spin aside, the current regulations are in place for moral rather than practical reasons. They have been enacted and enforced by an organization with a puritanical disapproval of booze. Although their ideal would be to get rid of it entirely, they have found it easier to inject as much inconvenience as possible into the process of buying it. It’s time for the state to make up its mind about the legality of alcohol. Either ban it outright (remember how well that worked the last time around) or get rid of the confuckled system of rules on when it can be sold.