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Published: Saturday, 10/29/2005

Drinking problem

SAN Francisco wants liquor stores in certain neighborhoods to restrict sales and access. But the city s dilemma is obvious: Alcohol is a legal product. The problem is that San Francisco s growing numbers of homeless people are consuming alcohol to excess and then need emergency medical help, straining the city s EMS system.

San Francisco s paramedics apparently can barely keep up.

And it s not just the homeless. In certain neighborhoods San Francisco juveniles buy alcohol illegally, and the stores are magnets for drug and gang activity.

So the city is asking liquor store owners to comply with good neighbor agreements, in which they would discourage criminal activity by limiting hours, and not selling certain types of alcohol. They would also agree not to sell it when government checks are distributed at the start and in the middle of each month. If stores don t cooperate, they could be forced to do so.

City officials are working on legislation to give them control of some aspects of liquor store business that currently are regulated by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Somebody s bound to have a problem with all this. The store owners won t be eager to curtail sales and cut their own income. Some neighborhoods will feel they are unfairly targeted. But San Francisco isn t trying to shut down liquor stores. It wants owners to show good corporate-like citizenship and help reduce crime and keep drunken citizens from burdening the city.

This idea isn t original. Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., imposed similar restrictions when too few of their downtown liquor stores complied.

Tacoma police say the restrictions have worked well, and a Washington State University study in 2003 dramatically illustrates the benefits: a 35 percent drop in emergency medical service incidents, a 21 percent drop in admissions to a detoxification center, and a 61 percent decrease in police calls about liquor in parks.

Obviously competing interests are involved here: free enterprise vs. a legitimate public health and welfare issue. San Francisco s experience will be watched closely across the land.

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