- Enrique Limón
- Dan Barker started Utahns Against the DABC with hopes of creating a grassroots campaign to promote more sensible drinking laws.
Under the sobering lights of a State Office Building auditorium at the Utah Capitol in October, Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centreville, likened the state's alcohol policy to a game of Jenga.
"When you just look at it from an economic standpoint and you look at things in isolation, it's very easy to say, 'Well, this piece just doesn't matter,'" he told an audience of state lawmakers and legislative staffers at the end of a day-long summit on alcohol policy. "People come to me and say, 'This is a stupid regulation. Why don't we just get rid of it?' But as we pull those pieces out of the Jenga stack, there's a risk that we destabilize a system that's working very, very well."
But the state would be better off knocking it all down, contends Dan Barker.
Barker is the founder of Utahns Against the DABC, a fast-growing Facebook group lobbying against the labyrinthine rules and state-monopolized liquor sales overseen by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Raised in Davis County and now working at an electronic manufacturing firm in Ogden, the 31-year-old Utah native has grown sick and tired of lawmakers' schoolmarmish approach to brewskis and booze. He hopes his group will lay the groundwork for a grassroots campaign to create more sensible drinking laws.
"We need to have somewhere where people can be in one place and show their voice," he says.
The casual drinker might believe Utah's alcohol rules are more lax than they've ever been, at least since the DABC was authorized by the state Legislature in 1935. Two years ago, the state passed a law allowing the "Zion curtains"—partitions designed to "protect" children from viewing bartenders mixing cocktails—to come down at many restaurants. High-point beer with 5% ABV alcohol content is now allowed in supermarkets and on tap at local watering holes.
Still, those seem like small concessions considering the Goliath-like powers that DABC commissioners wield over the alcohol biz. An estimated 90% of lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which eschews liquor, but the state makes big bucks from selling the devil's drink. The DABC made $480 million in alcohol sales during fiscal year 2019; more than 40% went into the general fund and various other municipal and state bodies—including $49 million to the state's school lunch program and $2.5 million to Utah's underage drinking prevention program, according to the department's latest annual report.
Business owners who run afoul of the agency can lose their liquor license—a potentially devastating consequence for restaurants, bars and other ventures that depend on alcohol sales to remain afloat. There are plenty of other issues that spark Facebook discussions, too—anything from the fact that you can't use a Smith's gift card to buy beer to the recent suspension of West High School principal Ford White, after driving home two students who'd been caught drinking on campus.
"It's all about personal freedoms and liberation to me, and letting people be adults. The DABC doesn't allow us to be adults," Nate Kizerian, a member of the group who's also a prominent medical cannabis advocate, tells City Weekly.
- Enrique Limón
According to a recent study by online insurance brand QuoteWizard, Utah ranks as the second-lowest state in America when it comes to alcohol consumption. Surprisingly, it also has the 22nd-highest rate of DUIs. But Barker stresses that he didn't start Utahns Against the DABC to promote excessive drinking.
He was raised in Kaysville, a city that didn't have a single bar when he was growing up. Almost all restaurants didn't serve beer either. Although he was never a heavy drinker, he appreciates the growing number of breweries opening across the state, and loves attending convivial events like City Weekly's annual Beer Fest.
"I just really like the craft of it, the way it brings people together," he says.
He started the group after reading about the struggles of a social axe-throwing venue to get a recreational beer license. The Salt Lake City space was at first denied licensing on the grounds that throwing axes didn't meet the state's legal definition of a recreational activity. DABC commissioners later reversed their decision when the venue added pool tables, the Associated Press reported.
"When I saw this company lose their license over this, I thought, 'Man, for them to say bowling is OK, and this isn't? Or darts is OK, but this isn't? This is really silly,'" Barker recalls.
When he launched Utahns Against the DABC in May, he didn't expect it would get much of a response—but Kizerian soon joined and gave the group a plug on his popular memes page Utah Satire, which boasts 127,000 members. In a matter of days, the number of Utahns Against the DABC's followers skyrocketed; as of early December, the group had amassed more than 4,700 members.
Kizerian played a key part in pushing the Proposition 2 ballot initiative to legalize medical cannabis, and he joined with hopes of building links between different grassroots efforts across the state and put pressure on lawmakers to make progressive reforms. (His friend Christine Stenquist, another leading medical cannabis advocate, joined Utahns Against the DABC as well.)
"I just got to the point where I'm, like, 'These representatives are no longer serving the people.' They're serving the church and they're serving their financial contributors and they're serving the pharmaceutical industry," Kizerian says of Utah's Republican lawmakers. "If there's anything I can do to change the system, I'm going to help."
Barker and others stress that Utahns Against the DABC is meant to build dialogue, not spread anger. As the group has grown, a team of moderators has been working to filter out off-topic content and mute members who get too aggro. Austin Coleman, a moderator and a friend of Barker's, says even lawmakers and representatives from the DABC itself are welcome to drop in and check out the discussions.
"We put it open and share a lot of stuff," he says. "We want you in here. It's not a closed group or anything."
Contacted by City Weekly, DABC spokesperson Terry Wood said over voicemail that he hadn't heard of the group; Wood didn't return calls seeking further comment.
But at the Capitol's alcohol policy summit in October, state Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, seemed to acknowledge the differing opinions about drinking laws in this mostly conservative state. Building on Rep. Hawkes' Jenga analogy, Stevenson compared drafting alcohol legislation to a game of whack-a-mole.
"We think we've got it about right, and then something else pops up or something changes," he told the audience. "I'm sure that there will be alcohol legislation in this state. I'm sure there will be marijuana legislation for the next 50 years. And it will come back on a continuous basis, because there will always be a few things that we need to fix."