A rash of reported alcohol violations by local bars, breweries and festivals since last spring has shined a spotlight on this area’s two primary alcohol agencies: Alcohol Law Enforcement and the Asheville Alcoholic Beverage Control board, one of four such entities in Buncombe County. With all the rumors and hearsay swimming around the stories of the Oskar Blues Burning Can festival bust, or even the Altamont Brewing Co. citations, it’s hard to tell where the facts end and the rumors begin. Here’s a closer look at those agencies and their respective roles.
Meet the ALE
Funded by the Department of Public Safety, the ALE recently became a branch of the State Bureau of Investigation. Authorized by state statute 18B-500, the agency is charged with inspecting any business with an alcohol or lottery sales permit. In the Asheville office, seven field agents cover 16 WNC counties, overseeing more than 1,500 gas stations, bars, convenience stores, music venues, restaurants, strip clubs, head shops and fraternal organizations.
“There’s been a media blitz the last several months, and everybody keeps talking about an ‘ALE crackdown,’ and there’s been no crackdown,” says Stacy Cox, special agent in charge. With so many permittees and so few agents, she says, the agency is stretched pretty thin. Another rumor said the ALE had hired seven new officers: In fact, only two have been hired, to replace a retiree and a transfer. “We’re just doing business as we always have,” notes Cox. “We’ve stayed fairly constant with the amount of violation reports we send in.”
So far this year, she continues, the ALE has seen just 10 underage sale violations; the 10-month average is 15. On-premise employee drug abuse charges are also down, with just five so far (the average is 8-10), and the 10 citations for on-the-job alcohol consumption are average for this point in the year.
Cox ascribes the hype surrounding the recent busts to the fact that they took place at such high-profile events. Illegal drug use, she notes, may also be a factor, since her agency enforces drug laws as well. “Wherever there’s alcohol, there’s drugs: 98 percent of the drug cases we work originate from an alcohol outlet.”
Meet the ABC Commission
The Raleigh-based ABC Commission has somewhat different priorities: overseeing the purchase, distribution and sales of spirituous liquor in North Carolina. The agency interprets state alcohol law, issues and revokes permits, and sells to and regulates the regional ABC boards.
Those interpretations have created a set of rules that are distinct from the state’s alcohol laws. Law violations lead to charges; rule violations lead to fines and possible permit suspensions or revocations. For example, the statewide ban on happy hour specials is a rule; the ban on sales to people under age 21 is a law.
Asheville’s ABC board is one of more than 160 authorized by state statute 18B-501. Besides buying and selling liquor within their jurisdiction, each board is also charged with educating the public about alcohol safety and enforcing state alcohol laws and ABC Commission rules.
“The state will pass a law, then everybody [at the ABC Commission] will sit down and say, ‘OK, we need to write the rules for the intent of the legislative standards,’” says Mark Combs, general manager of the Asheville’s board. Both the commission and the regional boards, he explains, are wholly funded by alcohol sales. “Your tax dollars are not at work here: We make money, and every bit of it goes to Buncombe County. They own us; they’re our stockholders.”
Regional ABC boards are required to spend at least 7 percent of revenues on enforcement. Smaller communities simply hire police officers to conduct alcohol permit checks. But Asheville’s board has established its own enforcement branch, consisting of Chief Al Bottego and two officers, to help clarify the interpretation and enforcement of a very lengthy book of laws within the city limits.
North Carolina is one of 17 “control states.” Alcohol “needs to be regulated because it’s a controlled substance: It kills more people than bullets,” Bottego says flatly. “The benefits of the program are that the $253 million gets returned to the general fund to help make us stronger, faster, smarter. If we deregulate it, we have anarchy.”
In July 2014, mixed beverage sales in Asheville totaled about $700,000. This year, they were over $934,000. “No business grows at that rate!” says Bottego. “That credit goes to the permittees and their ability to run good businesses. We are a byproduct of their success.”
Those consumers aren’t swilling rotgut, either: North Carolina ranks third in the nation in alcohol sales revenues but 48th in per capita consumption. Which, notes Combs, suggests that North Carolinians care more about the quality of their booze than about how much they consume — a statistic he’d like to maintain.
“We’re very much about being good businesspeople, but we’re also very much about knowing that we sell something that’s really, seriously bad for you,” he emphasizes. “My sister died at 43 from alcohol, and I know that no family gets away without being touched by this stuff. We know we can’t make it illegal: We’ve tried that. It’s part of the fabric of the human social system. Since it was invented, it’s been a part of us, so let’s manage it!”
That management, though, often gets tripped up by the laws themselves. North Carolina’s alcohol law book is thicker than the Bible, with a smaller font. “By the time anyone gets real good at it, it’s time to retire!” jokes Cox. And like Bottego and Combs, she says North Carolina’s laws are clunky and outdated. “Everything was put in place for a reason, and they will go through and repeal things over time, but there are some things that could use some updating.” As a result, adds Cox, “We have to use a lot of discretion in our enforcement. Sometimes there are laws that may not make sense. Does that mean we won’t enforce them? No, but what it typically means is that we’ll talk to somebody, work with them and counsel them through it.”
But updating those laws, notes Bottego, isn’t easy. “When you talk about the laws and the progression of the system, I agree: Things need to be changed. The problem we have is that we talk about the fact that they need to be updated and the legislators have to do it, but we miss those 99 steps in the middle. It’s a long, painful process that involves 100 counties and God only knows how many municipalities. There are so many players in the game, and so many moving parts. The way the system is designed right now, it’s very difficult for it to change: It just gets tripped up somewhere along the way.”