In Canada, outside of Quebec, it is illegal to drink alcohol, or even have an open container of alcohol, in a public place. Public drinking is banned throughout the US also. A number of other countries do not have such laws – in the UK, one can buy a bottle of beer in a pub and drink it on the street.
The optimal regulation of alcohol involves a trade-off. Higher taxes, restrictions on sales and laws banning public drunkenness go some way towards preventing alcohol abuse. At the same time, excessive restrictions impose unnecessary costs on ordinary, responsible, citizens, and may have unintended consequences.
Ontario’s conservative party leader Tim Hudak is proposing reforming the province’s alcohol distribution system. He believes in "increasing choice", and that the Ontario government should begin "treating people like adults". Yet easing the ban on drinking in a public place is not on the table, even though that, too, would be one way to treat people like adults, as well as giving people choice about when and where to drink. The question is: why?
There are lots of well-organized interest groups pressing for changes to liquor distribution, as I have argued elsewhere: convenience stores owners, who see beer sales as a way to expand their businesses; owners of pubs and restaurants, who would like to be able to import beer and wine without going through the LCBO; entrepreneurs, who see alcohol retailing as a profit opportunity.
These groups have established institutional structures for issuing press releases and lobbying - and they aren't about to use them to lobby to ease restrictions on drinking in public. There's no money in it. If people can buy a bottle of wine and take it to the local park, they might be less likely to go to a restaurant.
Yet the individual consumers who might like to drink in public places are an ineffectual lobby group. For serious drinkers, the legislation is merely an inconvenience – it’s easy enough to decant alcohol into a Gatorade bottle and add a spot of food colouring, or just ignore the laws. It’s just not worth fighting to change. Even those who care deeply about drinking in a public place have to overcome serious collective action problems: it’s much more difficult to organize millions of drinkers than it is to organize thousands of convenience store or pub owners.
So I don't think laws about drinking in public are likely to change any time soon. But yesterday as I sat on the shore drinking a bottle of wine and watching the sun set, it struck me - this is a real pity.