We Don’t Need Reform by Subtraction, Baltimore

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Baltimore Health officials announced Friday that they plan to use a city-wide rezoning initiative to force some 128 liquor stores to change or move their products. The stores that the effort targets would be illegal if they opened today – they’re in-between homes but were grandfathered in under a law that made that illegal 40-some years ago.

Officials have some good reasons for wanting to shut these places down. They’re almost all located in poor areas where crime is a big problem. A lot of the momentum for the effort comes from a Johns Hopkins study that found a correlation between the number of liquor stores and amount of violent crime in low-income neighborhoods. The rezoning would give these stores two years to move to new, legal locations, stop selling liquor, or to close up.

I understand that the program is aimed at improving the city’s culture, but its sociology and economics are off the mark.

The Hopkins research doesn’t prove a causal relationship between the liquor stores and violence, only a reflective one. Poorer areas often have more liquor stores than elsewhere; they also have more crime, but that doesn’t mean you can blame one for the other. I’d argue that both are products of a larger problem. And forcing these stores to move doesn’t lower demand, it just displaces the supply. The health committee is treating the wrong symptom – you don’t fix a broken hand by chopping off the finger.

The people who run these stores aren’t the problem: 90 percent of the shop owners who will be affected by these re-zonings are first and second-generation Korean-Americans, who, if you’ve checked the crime stats, aren’t the ones doing the stabbing and shooting. And frankly, our city can’t afford any more closed-up shop fronts.

So sure, we need to get Baltimore off the sauce, but compromising business isn’t the way to get it done. Instead of giving hard-working owners a hard time, maybe the health committee should focus on increasing community demand for fresh produce or coffee, or hell, laser tag. Give people something to do other than drink.

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