BROWN BAG BLUES Put down that 40! Burk Jackson
Prevalent in Snoop videos and marketed relentlessly to African American males, brands of 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor--like Olde English and 211 Steel Reserve--became icons in the '90s. For a buck-fifty, one 40-ouncer packs about the same wallop as five whiskey shots. But if the St. Johns Neighborhood Association has anything to do with it, the sale of malt liquor will be banned within a six-square-mile area.

For the past three years, members from the Neighborhood Association, the North Portland Police Precinct, and the OLCC have teamed up to devise a plan to rid the area of "street drinkers." Although the plan has crawled slowly through the bureaucratic process, this summer it's reaching its final stages before implementation.

Later this month, it's expected that Portland City Council will approve a plan to set in place an "alcohol impact zone" north of the railroad tracks at N. Ida and blanketing the entire St. Johns neighborhood. The next step in the process will be approval by the OLCC. Although three other neighborhoods in Portland are declared "alcohol impact zones," this will be the first such area approved and governed by the OLCC; as such, it will cut much deeper into the area's drinking habits. The city-sponsored zones request more diligence from the police, while asking the OLCC to consider liquor licenses with more scrutiny. However, the proposed St. Johns zone would put an outright ban on the sale of 40-ouncers. Moreover, if successful as a pilot program, the OLCC-approved St. Johns alcohol impact zone could pave the way for more bans and banish 40-ouncers from other neighborhoods.

Specifically, the plan would not allow the sale of malt liquors and fortified wines in bottles larger than 16 ounces in the St. Johns neighborhood. Proponents for the plan say that 40-ouncers are distinctly linked to "street drinking," which they associate with violence, fighting, and public nuisances. In the year span between April 2001 and April 2002, there were a reported 175 "street drinking incidents" in St. Johns--that's one every other day.

"This is the only enforceable way to get something done," explains John Farra with the St. Johns Neighborhood Association. Along with a former district attorney, Farra helped spark the idea that has matured into the proposed ban. Last year, he tried to convince retailers in the area to voluntarily comply, but found little success. Now, he has pushed for the heavy-hitting state-sponsored ban. "The city versions lack the teeth that the OLCC version has," Farra says.

The ban will affect roughly a dozen retail stores. There is a Fred Meyer and a Safeway within the area, as well as a 7-11 and two Plaid Pantries. So far, Farra says the plan has been met with a mixture of reticence and reluctance.

Within the area there are also four family-owned general stores that are part of the Korean Grocers Association. That organization has been the most vocal in their objections, leveling the complaint that the ban will cause a significant financial impact.

But Farra undercuts that argument. "Street drinkers don't seem to be doing a lot of grocery shopping," he explains, pointing out that the bottles are only a dollar or so. "There's not a lot of purchasing power," he adds.

"If someone really likes Olde English," Farra goes on, "he can still get it," saying that drinkers can bring the bottles back from stores in other neighborhoods.

That argument, however, leads to another objection to the plan. When the city implemented its first alcohol impact zone in Old Town, many drinkers simply crossed the Burnside Bridge and loitered around on the east side of the river. Subsequently city council was forced to design another zone in Central Eastside to respond to the overflow.

Farra is optimistic that city council will approve the petition for the zone. If so, the plan will move into its final stage: ratification by the OLCC.

Given the OLCC's myopic opinion of hiphop culture (which has glorified the 40-ouncer), it is likely the plan will sail smoothly through this final stage. Over the past few years, promoters for hiphop shows in Portland have complained that the OLCC has denied or discouraged approval for their liquor licenses based on the assumption that hiphop shows, music, and culture attract violence.

To lobby a complaint about the proposal with the OLCC, contact Ken Palkie, 872-5000.