Vice Squad
Friday, April 09, 2004
 
Personal Alcohol Licenses and a New Way to Measure Alcohol Consumption


When a person misbehaves under the influence of alcohol, I think it is a reasonable policy to revoke, for some period of time, that person's drinking privilege. Some people already are enjoined from using alcohol as a condition of probation or pre-trial release; the standard way of enforcing the no alcohol condition is to submit the targeted individual to random checks, or to require him or her to be at home at certain times (three times per day, typically) to take breathalyzer exams. Recently, Mark Kleiman suggested that we could broaden the alcohol licensing system, while using sellers as the first line of enforcement: just as sellers currently must check to see that an alcohol purchaser meets minimum age requirements, they could also check for a valid "drinker's license." Mark suggested that sellers form the front lines for enforcement because it would be too difficult for the state to enforce a general drinking license requirement.

But technology might be progressing to the point where it is possible to reliably track the drinking behavior of large numbers of people at relatively low cost. Alcohol Monitoring Systems, Inc., manufactures an 8-ounce ankle bracelet that measures alcohol concentration through ethanol that passes through the skin. The bracelet measures and records alcohol consumption on an hourly basis, and once the bracelet is fitted, the tests themselves do not require any active participation on the part of the wearer. The bracelets are designed to detect and record attempts at tampering, too.

The bracelet is already in use in some court systems. While it's a better deal than jail, the bracelet is far from free: according to the linked article, in Seneca County, Ohio, "The device would cost offenders a $100 refundable deposit, a $75 installation fee and $12 a day." In-home breathalyzers are slightly less expensive, though they do not offer the same disincentive to drink, as those tests are not conducted hourly.

In Professor Kleiman's post, he lists five potential downsides to alcohol licensing. The bracelet system could be employed on a fairly large scale, however, effectively providing the same benefits of more general licensing while skirting four of the five identified problems. The one problem that the system doesn't skirt is that alcohol sellers would lose some of their best customers, but that is a problem that mankind can bear.

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