As Canada works to limit social interactions and flatten the curve of coronavirus spread, many businesses have shut their doors.
But, in most provinces (and many U.S. states), liquor and cannabis stores remain open. In Ontario, they’ve been deemed “essential services,” leaving some questioning why intoxicants are something that society can’t do without.
In a now deleted tweet, Sarbjit Kaur, president of Kaur Communications and former Ontario Liberal staffer, said categorizing the LCBO as an essential service is “pathetic.”
She later tweeted, “This is basically about keeping a major revenue stream open and not pissing off the buck a beer bunch and wine moms. There are ways to accommodate health concerns of a few while protecting general public safety.”
VICE interviewed three experts who said shutting down liquor stores would create another public health crisis because it would send people addicted to alcohol into withdrawal, further taxing healthcare resources. One doctor said there would also be social consequences to cutting off alcohol access for people who aren’t necessarily dependent on booze, but use it to relax or cope with stress.
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Approximately 1 percent of Canadians have severe alcohol disorder. According to Statistics Canada, 19 percent of Canadians 12 and older (5.8 million people) qualified as heavy drinkers in 2016. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include tremors, fevers, seizures, anxiety, and in some cases cardiac collapse.
“Ultimately, they can die,” said Michelle Jordan, executive director of Shelter House Thunder Bay, which provides temporary housing and resources to homeless people and people with substance use issues.
She said stopping booze sales would put additional strains on hospitals, but also increase crime if people become desperate for alcohol. Jordan said an LCBO shutdown would likely be most harmful for “functioning alcoholics.”
In severe cases, including those at Shelter House, Jordan said people will drink non-beverage alcohol such as hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol. She has already seen people going through withdrawal due to the scarcity of hand sanitizer in the coronavirus pandemic.
Shelter House runs a Managed Alcohol Program (MAP), a harm reduction program that provides six-ounce servings of wine to people every 90 minutes, with the goal of reducing the need to turn to non-drinkable forms of booze, as well as limit binge drinking.
She is relieved the winery that provides alcohol for Shelter House’s MAP program is allowed to keep operating.
Dr. Jeff Turnbull, former chief of staff at The Ottawa Hospital who currently works at Inner City Health, said there are medical and social reasons to keep liquor stores open.
For people addicted to alcohol, going cold turkey is never a good idea, and can lead to serious health complications, he said.
But for others, he said drinking can be socially pleasant and comforting, given the unfolding pandemic.
“It’s a time when people are enclosed and isolated and I think they do look for opportunities to try to help with that,” he said, noting that closing liquor stores could create a black market alternative.
Turnbull said it’s valid to be concerned about the impact that alcohol will have on family situations where there is intimate partner violence. However, he said cutting off a person’s supply to booze could also potentially make them more prone to violence.
“It’s hard to know whether you’re making it worse by stopping (alcohol sales).”
Closing liquor stores can also trigger panic buying, which is counterproductive to increasing physical distancing between people. This was the case in PEI, which saw massive lineups filled with people looking to stockpile booze prior to a shutdown last week.
The province also closed government-run weed stores, but interestingly, other provinces haven’t followed suit. In Ontario, cannabis retailers were named an essential service.
Dr. Michael Verbora, chief medical officer for Alefia Health, a medical cannabis company, said cannabis patients use recreational stores to access medication.
Canada’s medical cannabis system is complicated to navigate, and patients can only order cannabis in the mail, so many go to retail stores instead.
“Without it kids can have seizures and patients may not get pain managed properly and revert to opioids,” Verbora said.
The reality is pandemics are stressful and people use alcohol and weed to cope, he added.
“They help distract people from stress. Obviously yoga and meditation is better but not always easy for most.”