Amid calls by two prominent politicians for the closure of a downtown liquor mart, harm-reduction advocates are pushing for a more progressive approach to quelling alcohol addiction, rather than forced abstinence.

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Amid calls by two prominent politicians for the closure of a downtown liquor mart, harm-reduction advocates are pushing for a more progressive approach to quelling alcohol addiction, rather than forced abstinence.

Both Mayor Brian Bowman and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont have suggested closing the provincially run liquor store at Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street, which sells a large quantity of sherry.

A freedom of information request filed by the Free Press found that sherry is the top product sold at that store. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries confirmed 32,947 bottles of "economy sherry" were sold at that location in 2018; between 30,000 to 40,000 bottles have been sold every year since 2016.

Both WinnipegMayor Brian Bowman and Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont have suggested closing the liquor store at Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Both WinnipegMayor Brian Bowman and Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont have suggested closing the liquor store at Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street

Lamont raised the idea of closing the downtown liquor mart Tuesday after the Manitoba Police Commission sought public input on how to make downtown safer. The Liberal leader later told reporters someone from city hall broached the idea with him, as one way of reducing harm.

"I’ve talked about it with other elected officials who say, look, hundreds of thousands of bottles of low-cost, high-alcohol sherry are being sold from a single outlet… and it’s a huge problem," he said.

"We do talk about meth, but alcohol is an enormous problem. We’ve seen all those recent break-ins and robberies that’s been an ongoing problem at liquor marts. But public intoxication is often driven by alcohol and you actually have the government owning a liquor store that is selling high-alcohol (content), low-cost booze to essentially cater to a vulnerable population."

On Wednesday, Lamont confirmed he had been talking to the mayor.

Interactive map: The most popular item at each Manitoba Liquor Mart

Canadian whisky was the top seller at 15 liquor mart locations across the province.
Canadian whisky was the top seller at 15 liquor mart locations across the province.

Posted: 6:21 PM Oct. 2, 2019

Twenty-nine liquor marts reported vodka as their top product sold, while 19 others sold beer or light beer the most. Canadian whisky was the top seller at 15 liquor mart locations, while wine dominated at three: pinot grigio and cabernet sauvignon at two south Winnipeg locations, and sherry at a downtown one.

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Bowman was unavailable for an interview Wednesday because he was in New York City meeting with bond raters. His press secretary Jeremy Davis sent an emailed statement on his behalf.

"I can confirm that Mayor Bowman supports closing retail sales at the Ellice Street liquor mart, but it was an idea that was brought forward by local businesses," Davis said. "It is an idea that has been raised with the mayor a number of times in discussions about how to help our downtown."

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries said it has no plans to close that store and that removing sherry from its shelves won't address the causes of addiction.

"If removing economy sherry products from the shelves would stop high-risk drinkers from overconsuming alcohol, we would strongly consider taking this measure," MLL spokeswoman Andrea Kowal said.

"The customers who usually buy economy sherries will buy a different product, or go to another store, or to a beer vendor or bar. In the worst cases, they will look to consume non-potable products, such as hairspray or mouthwash or hand sanitizer, with far more harmful effects."

Kowal acknowledged MLL has talked with groups such as the Main Street Project and the Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance (a group of private and public stakeholders brought together by Mark Chipman of True North Sports and Entertainment) about bringing a managed alcohol program to Winnipeg.

Low doses of alcohol would be given to people who have addictions so they don't go through painful withdrawal. Toronto and Thunder Bay, Ont., have such programs.

In 2018-19, MLL spent $4.3 million on addictions treatment and support programs, Kowal noted.

 

Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, pointed out MLL staff are trained to refuse liquor sales to people who are visibly intoxicated. Kowal confirmed that happened 16,000 times provincewide last year and 3,000 times at the Hargrave location.

"So, from my perspective, I’m more concerned with the idea that (a store shut-down) just moves the problem someplace else. It doesn’t actually deal with addiction. It’s an abstinence approach, so it will fail," Kehler said.

Kowal, Kehler and Lamont all discussed the possibility of bringing a managed alcohol program to Manitoba, as did Christian Schmidt, the deputy chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, who is also a member of the Alliance.

For as long as he can remember, alcohol-related calls have topped the WFPS' list when it comes to calls where substance use is the chief complaint. They made up about 78 per cent of the 28,670 substance use-related calls received by fire and paramedics from 2016 to 2019. That's five times more than any other drug. And the calls came from everywhere, not just downtown, Schmidt pointed out.

"The calls related to alcohol are not specific to certain areas of the city. We encounter patients with alcohol intoxication all over the city, in every community, every part of the community," he said.

The deputy chief emphasized the need to address the root causes of alcohol addiction, such as trauma, poverty and mental health issues.

"These addictions are very powerful. People will find a place in order to obtain the alcohol that they need to satisfy their addiction," Schmidt said. "So if you close one store, it’ll result in people going somewhere else."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu