Substance-abuse experts and recovering addicts say a proposal by City Councilors Bill Linehan and Frank Baker to fund new treatment programs through a 2% tax on Boston alcohol sales could provide new beds - and new hope - to addicts who now have to wait long periods for help.
Package-store and restaurant owners, however, say it's unfair to levy a new tax on an already heavily taxed product, that Boston businesses would lose out to competitors in neighboring cities and that the tax would hit the poor hardest of all.
If the entire council agrees to the tax, it would also have to be approved by the state Legislature and the governor.
Linehan (South Boston, South End, Chinatown) said he proposed the tax because substance abuse has shown a dramatic rise in Boston in recent years, "it's eroding the foundations of our neighborhoods and "we know what to do, we need funds to do it." He estimated the tax would raise $20 million for treatment programs.
Baker (Dorchester), acknowledged "taxes are unpopular" but added "I believe we have to do something."
Matthew Walsh, 34, of Dorchester, agreed. He said he got lucky - his family was able to help him pay for a residential program out of state that has so far meant five years of recovery, after he'd become "a homeless street junkie." Other people, as soon as they detox, find no place to go and just return to the street, he said, adding he started drinking when he was just 9 or 10 before moving onto the opiates that left him homeless.
Linehan and Baker did not have specific programs in mind for the money. John McGahan, CEO of the Gavin Foundation, said Boston alone needs "hundreds of beds" in addition to what it already has to help people. McGahan and other treatment specialists told councilors that making addicts and alcoholics wait up to 19 days for a treatment bed - the norm today - leaves them too much time to relapse and just go back to the street.
Dr. Edward Bernstein, who has spent 40 years as an emergency-room doctor at what is now Boston Medical Center, says it bothers him to see "the lost souls" on Mass. Ave. begging for money. "Why should this be happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, in a medical mecca," he asked.
Steven Rubin, owner of Huntington Wines and Spirits, agreed the city has a substance-abuse problem. But he said the answer is now sticking another tax on his products. Instead, he said, the city should take a page from the 1980s - when it had a keg problem - and work with local businesses to find other solutions. And one of those, he said, could be to just wait until next year, when voters may consider whether to make marijuana legal - which could mean all sorts of new tax revenues for treatment programs.
Besides, he fretted, government rarely gives up a tax. "After alcohol is clothing going to be next?"
Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, raised the specter of Bostonians fleeing the city for the tax-free state liquor stores of New Hampshire if the tax went through.
And like Rubin, he pointed to the possible marijuana referendum, which he said would mean "quite a bit more money than we're putting on the table today."
An officials with a national association of liquor makers dispensed with concerns about addicts, saying the working poor would be hit hardest by a "regressive" tax increase on alcohol sales, that Boston's liquor and restaurant businesses would lose jobs and business to other cities and that councilors should heed a 2010 referendum, in which Massachusetts voters repealed an excise tax on liquor.
Linehan, however, noted that while voters statewide might have done so, Boston residents voted 2-1 to keep the tax.
Other city councilors expressed concern about the ramifications of a tax on Boston businesses.
Sal LaMattina, who represents the restaurant-heavy North End, said he would be leary of anything that would hurt those establishments.
Josh Zakim, whose Back Bay/South End/Beacon Hill district has its own share of restaurants, agreed with Linehan and Baker that more money is needed for substance abuse, but that he would also be concerned about handing a competitive edge to places such as Cambridge, Somerville and even Watertown, which he noted recently got sort of crowned as Boston's Brooklyn.