Of all the reported recommendations in the Law Commission's report 'Alcohol in Our Lives', the one that has passed with least comment to date is the idea that licensed premises should have to close by 4am at the latest.
I'm sure for most people this seems perfectly reasonable. But there will be a group out there, a substantial group, for whom this will be the End of Life as They Know It.
I've spent more time in bars after 4am than most people. I've been a duty manager at two bars (nightclubs, some might call them) where we'd call last drinks about 8am. For a good few years back in the early 00s, working or not, there weren't too many Saturday or Sunday mornings where I wasn't emerging from a bar somewhere in the blazing sunshine, strolling homewards (or to the next party) amidst the joggers and early morning shoppers.
At the height of all this silliness, we sometimes wouldn't even go out until 4am. Our favourite bar didn't really get cranking until 6.
I can confirm this, at least from the perspective of a rational, sober society: Nothing good happens in a bar after 4am.
But... at the same time, nothing really bad happens either. The binge drinkers have long since binged and bust. The guy who was going to get violent ended up passing out in the corner about 2am, got woken up and went home. The alcoho-pop fuelled young woman about whom one exclaims "she must be cold" has long since had an emotional meltdown in the bathrooms, thrown up on herself and been put in a cab. 4am is where the wheat really is separated from the chaff.
So who's left? Other hospo workers whose bars have closed earlier and have headed out for an after-work drink - and hospo workers certainly can drink - surely not an unreasonable expectation; DJs and those who enjoy dancing to them; and let's be honest, people whose stamina has been artificially prolonged because they're on drugs.
Now maybe it was because it was 7am and my brain was dripping out my ear, but in all those years of being in bars after 4am (and the last time was only a couple weeks ago, so let's not assume it's all changed), I can't remember a single fight, a single punch thrown, in those long, long mornings. Around 11pm? Midnight? 1am? Heaps. When it comes to human nature, it really isn't darkest before the dawn.
But I can't say there's a really, really compelling social or moral argument why bars should stay open after 4am. Does it, as some suggest, make us more of an international city? Perhaps, but bars in NYC or London are - for the most part - shut up by that time. Will DJs and those who dance to them simply start going out earlier? Probably. Will hospo workers still be able to find a drink behind a locked door somewhere? Of course.
As for the other changes, well. When the drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18, what happened was more young people had problems with alcohol. There was more drink driving by people under 20, more hospital admissions for people under 20, more fights, more arrests, more unplanned pregnancies and STDs. In other words, people under 20, when given the right to drink, behaved exactly the same way the rest of us did around alcohol. Any politician who voted for the law change, and now expresses surprise at what happened, is a fucking idiot.
The question is whether the problems are disproportionate. The same argument applies to raising the driving age. It turns out that each year you lift it reduces the total number of accidents. Each year you lift it also impinges on the rights of that cohort to be able to drive, or in this case, to have a beer.
18 is a good age to start drinking legally. It's the same age people leave school, start university or get a job. It's the age can get married (without parental consent) and most importantly I think, can vote. When I was at University the drinking age was 20, and I was in my third year before I could legally walk into a bar. Not that it stopped me, but it does seem a bit silly in retrospect.
If we're going to crack down on alcohol - and I dare say we should, if we're looking at the harm it causes society - then let's crack down on it across the board. Let's not condescend and say 18 year olds are in a different class from 20 year olds. Increase the price to better reflect the cost to the public health system, and drain on law and order resources? Sure. Increase the restrictions on advertising to be more in line with that other scourge, tobacco? Why not. Lower the blood/alcohol limits for every adult driver? Makes sense - I'd rather know I can't have a drink and drive, full stop, than the current gamble where I can maybe have three but not four, unless one is a 4%er and I've had dinner, unless it's only been an hour and a half rather than two hours...
Of course there's a part of me -the former libertarian sitting on my right shoulder, not to mention the imp who loves to drink, and drink heavily - that rails against any restrictions on my ability to imbibe, whenever, wherever and however I choose. But that's not the society we're living in. We're living in a society where we, as a whole, pick up the tab for these problems. We're living in a society where we drive on the same roads as the people driving home pissed, sit at A&E with our sick children, having to wait for hours because the ward is full of wasted youth. A society where we have to pick our way carefully on the footpaths of an evening in order to avoid the myriad technicolour yawns.
I think New Zealand could do with an intervention.
Nor can it go without comment that the Government is giving due consideration to this report from the Law Commission, but the one with some sensible suggestions on dealing with 'the drug problem' was cast in the bin without a second thought.
On a related note, the crackdown on the Switched On Gardener chains. Interesting timing, the latest Metro magazine (the Best Restaurant edition), released the same day as all these busts, features an interview I did with three recently retired drug dealers. Amongst the interviews, a cannabis cultivator, whose also says he got everything he needed - including the seedlings - from his local hydroponics store. It's one of the more eye-opening pieces I've had the privilege to write, so it's another reason to pick up this month's edition.