Do Berkeley Residents Need California Alcohol Classes?

by: Mike Miller

There is no denying that Berkeley, California is one of the most liberally leaning cities in the United States, ranking right alongside Boulder, Colorado. The locations is also a tank for some of the nation’s greatest minds. Alcohol and other drugs have been a part of the Berkeley culture for almost 50 years.

Berkeley's long love-hate relationship with alcohol enters a new round this week when the City Council reconsiders its drunken-driving policies. As reported in

The proposal, put forth by the Peace and Justice Commission, urges the council to take a broad approach to the issue and not just focus on increasing penalties, which unduly affect people of color and the poor, commissioners said.

Driving under the influence of alcohol "is a problem in Berkeley, absolutely," said Peace and Justice chair Noah Sochet. "But Berkeley is a vibrant city with a lot of responsible, educated adults, and I think we can come up with a creative solution that's more fair."

The issue came up in 2011 when Councilman Kriss Worthington asked the commission to look at a DUI program in Oakley, which forces those convicted of drunken driving to reimburse the city for its costs, including the arresting officer's time.

But the commission found that, according to several studies, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be arrested for drunken driving than whites, and that DUI suspects who hired private attorneys were much less likely to be convicted than those who couldn't afford to.

The upshot is that tougher DUI penalties disproportionately affect poor people of color, and Berkeley should look at other options aside from increasing punishments, the commission concluded.

"This shows that we need to be careful before we plunge into this," Worthington said. "We don't want to adopt something with unintended pitfalls."

The commission suggests a wide-ranging approach, with input from the public health, public safety, transportation and mental health commissions. The goal will be education, not punishment or teetotaling, commissioners said.

"This is not us telling the public, 'You drink too much,' " said Peace and Justice vice chair George Lippman. "We want to take a modern, realistic position and look at this as a social issue, not just a criminal justice issue."

Berkeley's DUI rate is not significantly higher than other cities', but because it's a college town officials take alcohol issues seriously. Last year, Berkeley police arrested 254 people for driving while drunk, and countywide there were 585 alcohol-related accidents, 24 of them fatal.

For decades, Berkeley banned hard-liquor sales within a mile of campus, and even now the city has relatively few bars compared to other college towns with 35,000 students.

The Telegraph Avenue area south of campus, for example, has only three pubs now that the Bear's Lair and Raleigh's have closed. A party school it's not.

But it's also a town that loves food and good restaurants, and alcohol is an integral part of the culinary scene. Groceries feature long aisles of Pinot Noir and pale ale, and upscale wine shops are plentiful.

"You certainly don't want people driving under the influence, but maybe it makes more sense to see if our overall DUI policy is working," said City Councilman Gordon Wozniak. "Not just in Berkeley, but everywhere."

The council is scheduled to look at its DUI policy Tuesday. If it decides to revamp the policy, commissioners will return with more specific suggestions within a few months.