Liquor law: Two steps forward, one step back

When it comes to liquor law reform in Utah, why does it always seem to be two steps forward, one step back?

Thursday, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters he will sign the controversial HB155 passed recently by the 2017 Legislature.

The bill lowers the blood alcohol level for DUI from the nationwide standard of .08 percent to .05 percent.

Utah would be the first state in the nation to have a unwavering DUI blood level of .05 percent.

Herbert said he will call a special legislative session in July or August, and allow lawmakers and his administration – after months of study – to decide whether to keep HB155 as is, or modify it in some ways.

Perhaps along the lines of Colorado, which has a lower penalty for DUI between 0.5 percent and .08 percent; a higher penalty for .08 percent and above.

In any case, you may remember that House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville; and Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton; ran a successful alcohol reform bill (HB442) this past session.

And within five years licensed restaurants and bars may do away with the silly Zion Curtain opaque barrier for more reasonable open areas around bars where minors may not sit.

So we have the two steps forward with Wilson/Stevenson’s liquor reform, and now the one-step back in Rep. Norm Thurston’s HB155.

And so, once again, we should ask ourselves that when it comes to liquor and Utah, how long will the Mormon faith of top state leaders really set us free of religious interference?

Now, I’m not saying that HB155 in any way was designed or pushed by leaders of the LDS Church.

But, you see, such matters don’t have to be.

When it comes to punishing violators of Utah liquor law, there seems to be an open door to:

1) Adopt some really odd stuff, like the Zion Curtain – part of a LDS-approved (church leaders did not put the kibosh on it) 2009 reform.

2) Punish abusers more harshly than anywhere else in the United States.

If the good name of the LDS Church is dragged into all matters liquor, Mormon leaders have only themselves to blame – even if the blame is undeserved in specific situations, like HB155.

For over 100 years church leaders in Utah have gotten involved in liquor – even to the extent that in 1968 they actively opposed a ballot proposition that would have allowed liquor by the drink.

The really fine reform of 2009 got rid of private clubs – were anyone who wanted to get just a drink, and maybe some food later – needed to join such a club, driving tourists nutty with the regulations.

And so now we have liquor by the drink in a licensed bar – only those 21 or older can get in.

But the salve to LDS Church leaders in 2009 was the Zion Curtain, which would allow “normal” families with children to attend a liquor-serving restaurant without the children seeing the evil brew being poured – their view obscured by the curtain.

Herbert said during the last session that he did tell Mormon leaders what Wilson and Stevenson were up to – as he did talk to many stakeholders about their curtain-ditching bill.

The church never endorses liquor reform. If leaders approve, they stay silent – as was the case with the fall of the curtain.

If they oppose, well, they say so and the LDS governor and the 80 percent of lawmakers who are LDS see that such reform does not advance.

Now, Herbert says HB155 has nothing to do with religion. It is all about public safety. Period.

But study after study show that drunk drivers who crash and hurt or kill themselves and other innocents almost always have blood alcohol levels above .08 percent. So lowering the level to .05 percent is not guaranteed to save pain or lives.

Yes, any alcohol in the blood stream probably brings some level of impairment.

Herbert says it is only a matter of where to draw the line.

But if that is the case, why allow any alcohol in a driver’s blood? Zero tolerance.

Some other nations do this.

And if alcohol is impairment, then why allow anyone to drive with a pain killer in the blood?

Or a muscle relaxant?

Or some anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug in the blood stream?

All these “impair” physical performance and mental acuteness to some degree.

We are tough on alcohol and driving because it is relatively easy to obtain and drink, it is proven to kill, and it is much disliked by the major religion in the state.

You can’t get a temple recommend if you drink alcohol.

You can be a faithful Mormon if you take prescribed anti-depressants, muscle relaxants, anti-anxiety drugs or a number of other items that affect a person’s ability to drive.

If hot tea and coffee led to impaired driving, we would be measuring those blood levels as well, you can bet.

Utah is different.

In almost all ways this is good.

We are a great place to raise kids. Despite underfunding we have good schools, fine universities.

We have low crime.

You can walk almost any street after dark and be safe.

And, yes, we are genuinely nice people.

But when it comes to alcohol, it is two steps forward, one step back.

It’s a dance we can’t seem to get away from.