OR: Oregon drug policy director concerned by to-go cocktail legislation
by Evan Schreiber
June 2, 2021
PORTLAND, Ore. — A bill giving a big win to Oregon bars and restaurants might be doing more harm than good, according to alcohol recovery advocates.
Oregon lawmakers passed Senate Bill 317 on Tuesday, allowing to-go cocktails to continue even after the coronavirus pandemic. Governor Kate Brown signed legislation in December that allowed restaurants and bars to add to-go cocktails to their menus immediately as a way to help the industry that had been struggling amid the shutdowns.
“This passing is making a lot of restaurant operators feel that optimism again finally,” said Ricky Gomez, the owner of Palomar in Southeast Portland.
That feeling of hope for some is a worry about harm for others. The timing is troubling for Dr. Reginald Richardson, the executive director of Oregon’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, who was appointed by Brown.
“We saw a significant increase in the use of alcohol during the lockdown periods,” Richardson said.
As KATU News reported in April 2020, some liquor stores were reporting strong sales and were weathering the storm of the coronavirus pandemic, even as nearly all bars and restaurants were being hit hard by the outbreak and stay-home orders in Oregon. In September 2020, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) voted to make permanent some temporary rules put in place at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including adjustment to allow door-to-door delivery and curbside pickup, which was an unexpected life-saver for some businesses.
Yet, alcohol kills more people than all other drugs combined in Oregon, and data from the Oregon Health Authority showed that in 2017, 1,923 Oregonians died from alcohol-related causes, including chronic diseases, acute poisoning, injury, and perinatal causes, and the number of Oregonians dying is up 34% in the overall rate of alcohol-related deaths since 2001. More than five people in Oregon are dying each day from alcohol-related causes.
Richardson says the stats don’t get enough attention.
“Every one of us knows someone who has been able to use alcohol and have no problem,” Richardson says when asked if there’s any disconnect from people about the danger of excessive drinking. “So when you don’t necessarily see all the folks who have had addictive problems, it makes it more difficult to hear that argument.”
Research released by the Oregon Health Authority in collaboration with consulting firm ECONorthwest shows that Oregon’s cost associated with excessive drinking was approximately $4.8 billion in 2019.
With pandemic-era restrictions being lifted, to-go cocktails are a change worth keeping for Gomez.
“We need long-term help and this is one step in the right direction,” he said.
Alcohol industry advocates are encouraged by the vote from Oregon lawmakers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Oregon’s hospitality businesses, and it will take years for them to fully recover,” said Adam Smith, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States Vice President of State Government Relations, in a statement to KATU News. “Local restaurants, bars, and distilleries are desperate for a sustained source of revenue, and making cocktails to-go permanent provides a critical lifeline as they get back on their feet. We thank the legislature for passing this measure and encourage Governor Brown to sign this bill and make cocktails to-go permanent.”
The bill overwhelmingly passed both houses of the legislature. The governor’s staff told KATU News the legislation will go through their office’s standard review process, “and Brown will review the legislation when it reaches her desk.”
The anticipation is that Brown will sign these permanent to-go cocktail rules into place, as she did to make the rules temporary last year.
KATU News asked Richardson if he expects Brown will listen to his concerns over the will of the state legislature and whether Richardson expects Brown to change her mind and reverse her pandemic-era position on alcohol rules.
“I have the complete confidence that our governor will do what she believes is best for our state,” Richardson repeated twice.
He believes it’s best to not increase access to alcohol in Oregon.
“Any policy that increases access is potentially problematic for a group of people,” Richardson said. “It worried us that it would be more of the same, in terms of getting people on the pathway to addiction.”