New Law Combats Alcohol Sales to Minors

"If approved by Congress, the DC Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulatory Amendment Act of 2014 will affect how Ward 7 liquor stores, like this one, advertise and increase the amount of inspections east of the river. Photo by Charnice A. Milton"

“Alcohol is the norm in many communities in Ward 7, as it is in many communities elsewhere,” says Lois Callahan, project director of the Ward 7 Safe & Drug-Free Communities Coalition (W7SDCC). “Alcohol is a part of almost every social engagement. So, whenever families get together ... there's alcohol everywhere.”

As of January 26, there are 21 establishments with Class A liquor licenses (liquor stores) and 24 with Class B liquor licenses (grocery stores) in Ward 7. Many people are surrounded by alcohol from a young age. 

The Role of Regulators

“The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration [ABRA] conducts a variety of enforcement activities in all areas of the District to ensure compliance with alcohol laws,” says ABRA’s public information officer, Jessie Cornelius. “This includes sale-to-minor laws.” ABRA combats underage drinking using compliance checks and the DC Double Check 101 program. Compliance checks come in two forms: regular ID checks and the sale-to-minor program.

ABRA investigators and minors from participating organizations visit licensed establishments unannounced. Under ABRA observation minors attempt to buy alcohol, using their real ID cards and giving their real age if asked. Vendors who fail this compliance check could face a fine, suspension, or loss of their license. The DC Double Check 101 Program is a collaboration with the Metropolitan Police Department, the National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking (NCCPUD), the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration (APRA), and area universities. ABRA's participation includes on-campus alcohol awareness events as well as receiving tips about establishments suspected of serving or selling alcohol to minors. 

On December 3, 2013, Councilmembers Yvette Alexander (Ward 7), Anita Bonds (At-large), and Muriel Bowser (then Ward 4) co-introduced the Alcohol Sales to Minors Enforcement Act of 2013. If enacted the bill would require ABRA to conduct regulatory inspections for all licensees at least once a year and compliance checks for minor sales for 90 percent of licensees at least twice a year. However, as ABRA Director Fred Moosally testified, “It is important to emphasize that since [fiscal year] 2013, our Agency no longer receives funding from the Federal government to conduct compliance checks. As a result, our Agency would require additional funding and staffing from the Council ...” 

Under a compromise between the Business Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (BCRA) Committee and ABRA, the agency began on Jan. 1 to conduct minor-sales compliance checks at least twice a year at Class A and B licensees in Wards 7 and 8. This will continue until the end of the 2016 fiscal year. “The agency will be reviewing the results of those checks to learn whether additional measures are needed,” states Cornelius. “In addition, ABRA will be providing a report with its findings to the Council within 60 days after the end of each fiscal year.”

Explains Councilmember Alexander, who serves on the BCRA Committee, “While there is no increase in penalties, an increase in inspections can ensure compliance. If you increase penalties, non-compliance can still happen.” 

New Legislation

On Jan. 26, Mayor Bowser signed the “Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2014.” This legislation group (which includes bills co-introduced by Councilmember Alexander) aims to address substance abuse among youth in two ways. First, it increases penalties for selling liquor to minors. “There are a lot of liquor and convenience stores in Ward 7, and kids tend to go to them after school,” Councilmember Alexander explains. “It has always been and will continue to be a concern.”

Second, the new law limits the liquor advertising space permitted on store windows to 25 percent of total window space. “This is a good safety rule too,” said Callahan. “When we see these ads, not only are they a blight on the community, but you can't look in to see what's going on in the store before you go in.”

What Else Can Be Done?

Says Callahan of W7SDCC, “We're not just sitting back and saying ‘the legislation's passed and now it's out there doing its work.’ Part of our mission is to empower youth to make changes in their own communities.” To that end W7SDCC will work with youth groups and train as many as 50 teens to meet with liquor retailers throughout the ward, starting with 10 that were found to be non-compliant in 2014. W7SDCC hopes to meet with all liquor retailers by the end of the summer. 

Councilmember Alexander acknowledges that more work needs to be done. “We've had a lot of repeat offenders,” she explains. “If you know of any offending retailers, go to ABRA or the [Alcoholic Beverage Control] Board. That way licenses can be suspended or revoked.”

Meanwhile W7SDCC is working with ABRA and communities around the ward. For instance W7SDCC sponsors alcohol-free events at Kenilworth Courts on Friday nights. “Families are getting behind this, because they can see this is another way youth are accepting the fact that this is the norm,” explains Callahan. “We're trying to show the youth that you can have fun and have a good time without having alcohol and other drugs available.” 

The Ward 7 Safe & Drug-Free Communities Coalition is located at 4645 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20019. To learn more visit w7sdcc.org. Contact them at 202-329-8227 or email Lois Callahan at lncallahan@w7sdcc.org.