© 1991 Karen Selick
 Brandy is Dandy But Lysol is Quicker
An edited version of this article first appeared in the November, 1991 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 Brandy is Dandy But Lysol is Quicker

It was hailed as a miracle when Jesus transformed water into wine but, strangely, there have been no worshippers rushing off to Edmonton, where the courts have recently performed the equally unlikely feat of transforming Lysol into liquor.

In several trials held during the past year, Edmonton judges have convicted and imposed severe fines upon small grocery stores and storekeepers for selling liquor without a license.  What the accused actually did was sell Lysol (a household disinfectant), rubbing alcohol, mouthwash and other alcohol-containing products to grubby, ill-smelling undercover police officers. 

I will leave it to the legal scholars to ruminate over the mental gymnastics used by the courts in reaching their extraordinary legal conclusion that Lysol is liquor.  My concern is the moral philosophy that motivated the police to engage in the exercise in the first place: the notion that each of us is responsible for protecting everyone else from their own deliberate irrationality.

One wonders in passing, however, what ingenious reasoning they would have resorted to had they been faced with the problem of a licensed drinking establishment, rather than an unlicensed grocery store, selling Lysol to a patron who insisted upon it over, say, Chivas Regal.  (According to one study, a minority of alcoholics do consider Lysol their beverage of choice.) 

But back to the moral question. 

Apparently, Lysol is cheaper than liquor and gets you drunk more quickly.  Its other virtue is that it's available from stores that keep longer hours than the government's liquor store.  Its drawback is that it kills you more quickly than government-approved liquor.

Call it a "social problem" if you will (I wouldn't), but then why place such enormous responsibility for preventing it on a tiny segment of society, namely a bunch of small grocers?  Lysol, rubbing alcohol and mouthwash are perfectly legitimate products for them to sell.  Why should they be responsible for the manner in which a customer chooses to use or abuse the product? 

There are lots of other people who could just as validly be assigned a share of the blame.  How about the federal and provincial governments, who tax liquor so heavily that Lysol becomes a bargain in comparison?  Or maybe Edmonton's social service agencies, who are obviously failing in their task of rehabilitating the city's derelicts?

Maybe the manufacturers of Lysol could be blamed for not making their product even more vile-tasting than it already is.  I understand they are actually working on this, undoubtedly fearing that someone will act on this intentionally preposterous suggestion.

Of course it's ridiculous to cast about in this manner for remote people to blame when the solution to the problem lies right at the very heart of the problem itself--in the choices made by each individual alcoholic.

Containers of Lysol, rubbing alcohol and so on generally bear a printed warning that ingesting the contents could be harmful or fatal.  This is common knowledge in any event; Lysol aficionados dilute the stuff with water to protect themselves from the worst effects.

I think it's fair to assume that alcoholics know they are committing slow suicide, whether by Lysol or whiskey.  Maybe they lack the courage to end it quickly.  Maybe they're undecided about whether suicide is the answer.  Whatever their reasoning, they have no-one to blame but themselves.

I reject the argument that they are prisoners of their addiction.  Millions of addicts conquer their addiction and go on to lead fulfilling lives.  Besides, the immediate problem of Lysol drinking does not require a complete renunciation of drink.  It just requires the teensiest bit of advance planning--keeping enough booze on hand to last until the liquor store reopens. 

If alcoholics won't make sensible choices for themselves, why should storekeepers be punished?  Why are storekeepers supposed to care more about alcoholics than the alcoholics do themselves?

It's interesting that the police had to resort to an undercover operation to get the evidence they wanted.  The storekeepers' "victims" wouldn't testify because they don't consider themselves to be victimized.  They want the stores to carry on selling them Lysol.

Meanwhile, I wonder how many honest Edmontonians were genuinely victimized by thieves, vandals, rapists, etc., in cases that will never be solved because police preferred to spend their time masquerading as drunks.

Some Edmonton stores have now removed Lysol and various brands of hair spray from their shelves entirely.  Apparently, it's not worth the hassle of confronting irritable customers over what they intend to do with their purchases, and not worth the risk of criminal charges for guessing wrong.  Customers who merely want to clean their bathrooms or fix their hairdos are out of luck. 

The Liquor Control Board has now started opening liquor stores at 8:00 a.m. instead of 10:30, to encourage alcoholics to drink something less noxious.  Funny, I thought the justification for giving the government a monopoly on the sale of liquor was to discourage consumption, not encourage it.  The mask is now off.  The real purpose is to keep people buying expensive booze to enhance government revenues.  When a group of individuals pull a stunt like this, we call it organized crime.  When our elected representatives do it, we call it good government.



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