Andrew Koubaridis tours central Auckland with police and late-night drinkers as a legal crackdown begins on the sale of alcohol

It's 3am on Thursday in central Auckland and a young woman, pale and unaware of her surroundings, clutches her bag of McDonald's tightly.

Her friends support her as they look for a taxi. As she walks unsteadily along Shortland St, the woman dips her head into the bag as if to vomit.

The group of students - some of whom who say they are at law school - are sober enough to notice the Weekend Herald photographer accompanying police, who are patrolling the streets just hours after the start of tighter liquor legislation, including a 4am closing time for bars.

"You need our permission and our signatures to take our pictures and we don't give it," a blond woman says earnestly, while her friend gags into the takeaway bag beside her.


Unfortunately for the students, Inspector Gary Davey, Auckland City's Crime Prevention Manager, knows the law a little better than they do. He inquires cheerfully if it's their first year in law school - the answer is yes. He assures them their photo can be taken in a public place. In any case, he's far more concerned the girl gets home safely.

"A big part of what we do is try to keep people from becoming victims," Davey says. That includes people walking home by themselves - females and males - who could be a magnet for those preying on the vulnerable.

The newly introduced Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act will mean big changes not only for bars and their patrons but a renewed focus for police on reducing alcohol harm.

On Thursday morning officers were keeping a close on eye on groups and individuals throughout town, watching for signs of trouble - or the prospect of trouble later.

For the most part, the first signs of drunkenness was not vomit, violence and vandalism but the noise.

"It's the voices [that] are a dead giveaway," Davey says as we drive through the largely traffic-free streets of central Auckland. The majority of drunks who amble their way across the roads and along the pavement talk animatedly with their friends. For the others though, there is no hiding the fact that it has been a big night.

On Wyndham St, two women walk near the middle of the road. They veer off to the side as we approach and the more sober of the two agrees to keep off the road, but her friend isn't as clever.

She swears and is defiant, so we stop and Davey follows her up to Jet Bar, where she is waiting in line.

She doesn't have ID but says she is 22, and he explains to the staff that he wouldn't expect her to be served.

Her friends promise to look out for her, which is what the next group of people we encounter on Queen St also say they will do for their friend. They have come to our attention because one of them kicks a rubbish bin near the intersection of Shortland St and Queen St as they wait for the traffic lights.

Their IDs are checked and Davey uses his smartphone to find out whether there are any warrants issued against the main offender. There aren't and the rubbish bin offence is relatively minor, but they're inviting trouble with the law as they gradually become defiant.

"They're just talking themselves into trouble," Davey says. But it isn't enough to take them to the cells, so they are allowed to go; their loud voices can be heard for minutes later.

Says Davey: "They might come to our attention later in the night, we'll see."

There are a number of police outside fast-food spots in the city as that is where people inevitably congregate. "There and at taxis, as they spill out into the streets."

By now it is past 4am. Bars have served their last drinks and patrons have 30 minutes to finish their drinks and leave. The Alcohol Prevention Team has been inspecting bars and speaking to owners and no major issues have emerged.

For everyone involved - police, patrons, and the hospitality industry - this is a learning curve. Asked what will happen in places like Fort Lane, a hotspot for offending in the downtown area, Davey says he can't be sure. "That's what we're here to find out."

As the crowds thin out and people head home, stragglers remain sitting on seats on Fort St. But despite a busier Wednesday night than usual, there will be "four or five times" as many people tonight.

It will be up to a month before the exact numbers of infringement notices issued on Thursday morning are known, but from speaking to police staff Davey didn't think it would be a large number.

And discussions with bar staff revealed most were up to speed with the changes and just had questions about "the finer points of the law".

Rebecca Williams, the director of Alcohol Healthwatch, says the changes were a bit like "stepping into the unknown".

To a certain extent there was a wait-and-see approach to what impact the changes would bring.

"Part of me thinks maybe it's not much of a cutback to make a difference. I think there's about 300 establishments in Auckland who are currently 24/7 so those late night trading [places] are associated with very high levels of harm. So my fingers are crossed the default trading hours will change a little bit of culture."

Much of that depended on how patrons responded, along with the levels of enforcement that police and others were able to carry out.

"There is potential. We could see a reduction in the alcohol-related assaults and the drink-drive-type things we track. So that's a good thing - if we can get there it's such a good thing."

Some of the opposition from the hospitality industry to the 4am closing times was their contention that it placed in jeopardy the chance to turn our central cities into "vibrant" nightspots, and denied downtown licensed premises an income.

They are not arguments that Alcohol Health Watch or the police easily accept.

Says Williams: "From 2am on it's really focused on heavy drinking and it's not actually about vibrancy or socialising [but] heavy intoxication ... Most of it. That's where a significant level of harm comes in. I think some of the interesting things that showed up in Australia when they looked at reduced trading hours was it also impacted on pre-drinking."

Those findings showed the flow of people who began drinking in their own homes or elsewhere and then migrated into the CBD changed when drinking hours were reduced, something Williams regards as a positive signal. "People still spent the same amount of money so the CBD didn't die, as some the hospitality groups have said. It's not about that, it's about reducing harm and it's about creating places for other people to come and enjoy."

Davey also believes the changes will enhance central areas, not destroy them. "It is the police view that nothing good happens in the CBD after 3am."

Instead, it is hoped the changes will actually allow more vibrancy into central areas, not less, from those who don't feel threatened by drunken behaviour.

Williams believes the combined effect of the changes, properly enforced, could lead people to change their drinking."

Ultimately though it would come down to individual choice "and what their expectations are".

"You want to change the drinking culture but what are you going to do - wave a magic wand? You can't do nothing and expect a culture to change," she says.

"You actually have to push for boundaries and push people from their comfort zone and do something different. If it works, great, if it doesn't, then do something else. We can't carry on like we have."

Police speak to young people in Queen St in the early hours of Thursday. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Police speak to young people in Queen St in the early hours of Thursday. Photo / Sarah Ivey

New liquor rules

The changes include:

• Off-licences must close by 11pm.

• On-licences must close at 4am.

• Police officers will be able to issue alcohol infringement notices for a range of new offences, including breach of local alcohol bans, lending ID to an under-18-year-old, and presenting a fake ID ($250 per offence).

• Bars that serve intoxicated people, or allow them to remain on the premises while intoxicated, risk a fine of up to $10,000.

• Police throughout NZ will use an "alcohol assessment tool" to assess whether a person is merely under the influence of alcohol or "intoxicated" as defined in the act.