Life in the wee hours could be made safer and better for business if New Zealand adopted the policies of cities such as Amsterdam, writes Natanael Rother.
It would be insane to do the same thing over and over again and still expect different results. It’s a lesson those embroiled in the politics of the night have yet to learn.
Trying to solve the obvious challenges of nightlife – like dealing to nuisance by sending clubbers home early, or helping people who have serious problems with alcohol by restricting it for everyone else – has been at the core of New Zealand’s policies for more than a century.
It did not work for the wowsers of old. People simply brewed their own booze or tried to drink as much alcohol as possible in the little time they had until the 6pm last-drink cut-off.
Fun-policing (i.e. restricting the availability of alcohol and earlier closing hours) does not work these days either. New Zealand’s nights are nowhere close to realising their rich culture and full potential. Harmful drinkers are not given adequate support, while regulation unnecessarily punishes the rest of the grown-up population.
But there is hope for New Zealand’s life after midnight: night-time mayors and trial-based policies.
Night time mayors
The idea of a night time mayor was put into the spotlight after it was successfully implemented in Amsterdam in 2003. The role works as an intermediary interest group for the sector and the wider public, and Amsterdam’s collaborative approach has led to various improvements for the industry and revelers alike.
The night time industry came together to provide a team of trouble-shooters, easing pressure on the police force. A smartphone app was developed to make it easier for people to complain about nuisance (and for police to respond). To make the night environment more enjoyable and pleasing, the Dutch electronic multinational Philips was persuaded to invest in significantly more subdued, even refined, lighting for the elegant townhouses that line the town square, replacing garish neon.
Most notably, in the busy Rembrantplein bar and club mecca nuisance complaints dropped by 30% and alcohol-related incidents by 20%. While it is difficult to establish clear causality, it seems plausible that some of this success was due to the night mayor’s contribution.
Amsterdam’s night mayor has experienced several life stages. At first, eight people formed the collective “De Nachtwacht” or The Nightwatch. Unlike in the Game of Thrones, where The Night’s Watch is a military order that holds and guards the Wall to keep the wildlings and White Walkers from crossing into the Seven Kingdoms, The Nightwatch in Amsterdam existed to protect the nightlife.
Today, Amsterdam’s mayor of the night is embedded in an organisational structure. The board executes the work and acts as a strategic body. The night council acts as an advisory board with advice-giving power only.
The South Dakota Sobriety Project
Unfortunately, nightlife is not just fun and games. Alcohol can come with a downside, even for non-drinkers, which explains why people support broad measures restricting alcohol availability. But there is another way to target alcohol-related harms more directly.
The trial South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Project worked to reduce the costs imposed by harmful drinkers, targeting repeat drink drivers who were forbidden from drinking alcohol as condition of their probation.
New Zealand’s drug and alcohol courts can impose similar probation conditions. But probation in American states trialing a 24/7 approach is monitored either by twice-daily alcohol breath tests, or through a secure continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet that tests for alcohol use up to every 30 minutes. Breach of probation comes with the near-certainty of a night in the cells, rather than a low probability of a more severe punishment.
Between 2005 and 2013, around 25,000 drinkers had participated in the project. The South Dakota trial showed a substantial reduction not only in repeat drink driving but also in domestic violence. The harmful drinkers whose unhealthy relationship with alcohol led to drink driving were often the same people whose unhealthy relationship with alcohol led to other harmful outcomes.
The 24/7 project has shown some promising results. Traffic crashes for male drivers aged 18 to 40 appear to have reduced, and despite nearly half the trial’s participants spending at least some time behind bars it looks like the project reduces jail occupancy overall – short stints in the cells for drinking while on probation can prevent much longer visits for crimes committed while drunk. Minnehaha and Pennington counties reported that their average jail populations fell by around 100 occupants per night shortly after implementing 24/7, for example.
Monitored and enforced no-alcohol conditions for heavy and harmful drinkers are targeted at that part of the population who impose costs on others, and for whom all other measures have failed. Trialing 24/7 in New Zealand makes sense. If the Ministry of Justice found it to be effective, it could become a more regular part of probationary sentences for offenders tied to alcohol use. It would be a targeted policy that shows real promise in reducing the real social costs of alcohol-related crime, while not hindering those whose nights out are harmless.
We believe both these proposals from The New Zealand Initiative’s latest report, Living after Midnight, will help meet the demands of today’s night times. After all, only one thing is more insane than sticking with an approach proven to be futile – not trying policies we know have been successful elsewhere.
Natanael Rother is a research fellow with the New Zealand Initiative.
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