Six Years After – Alcohol Free Beaches in Pacific Beach

Here is a detailed review of what occurred leading up to the alcohol-free beach policy and what happened after the beaches became alcohol-free. We hope you will consider this a reminder of the great things community involvement can accomplish.  We  thank Scott Chipman for this thorough review. 

August 22, 2013

On November 5th 2007 the city council imposed a one-year alcohol free trial at San Diego beaches and coastal parks. This in part was a response to an alcohol fueled Labor Day riot where hundreds fought with each other, threatened violence and attacked police. Seventy officers in riot gear responded and 17 people were arrested.

Some said a new alcohol-free policy was an overreaction to an isolated incident. But for over a decade local residents had been expressing concern about binge drinking, public drunkenness, beer bongs and alcohol luges and lewd behavior and drunken pre-riotous conditions that had become commonplace in Pacific and Mission Beach. In 2002 concerns grew large enough to prompt a public vote on Prop G to address the growing problems. Prop G would have created alcohol-free zones South of Crystal Pier. Those who wanted alcohol free beaches everywhere, those who didn’t want the problem to move to their unaddressed beach and those who wanted a “free” flow of alcohol on all beaches voted against it. Prop G lost by less than 1%.

About 15 years earlier a 1-year alcohol-free beach trial had been implemented at La Jolla Shores beach. After a year of alcohol-free the trial was never discussed. A 1-year trial had become an unofficial permanent policy and families in Pacific Beach and elsewhere began a tradition of leaving their own neighborhood to take their children to a more family friendly beach environment in La Jolla.

Prior to the riot there wasn’t the political will to address the issue. Little attention was paid to community members who were explaining, complaining and recommending a policy change. What almost no San Diegan knew was that San Diego was the last major city in the US with an urban beach to allow alcohol consumption. Virtually all other cities had addressed the issues related to beach alcohol in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. And none of these cities took a public vote on this public safety issue. But, in San Diego, drinking at the beach had become an institution and the demographics of communities near the drinking had shifted to favor those who considered the free flow of alcohol at the beach a right. Those demographics have not changed back and, in part, contribute to the continued alcohol scene in the business district and the continuing morphing of restaurants into bars and the high crime and high DUI numbers in Pacific and Mission Beach.


Alcohol related crime near the beach was 38 times city-wide averages prior to alcohol-free beaches. After Prop D those numbers dropped to 19 times nearly immediately. That is still unacceptable and it shows that getting alcohol overconsumption under control is a key to reducing the local high crime in our business district. Underage drinking citations dropped so much at the beach that it reduced the city-wide numbers by 30%.

But more positive things happened that are less obvious. Prior to the Prop D campaign local residents knew there was a problem and knew the solution used in other cities. They made their case effectively and often but were rebuffed by elected officials who were inappropriately influenced by special interests and were risk-adverse to leading on the public safety issue. At a community forum during the 2006 District 2 city council campaign 17 of 17 candidates for the seat indicated that alcohol related issues were the number one problem in the beach areas.

Residents continued to organize, collect data, and press for an alcohol-free beach policy. When the riot occurred, that organization and information was ready to make the point that the riot was only a culmination of years of a progressing problem with alcohol at the beach. The night of the riot Kevin Faulconer called a number of residents and indicated he was thinking of supporting an alcohol ban at the beach and asked if we would support him in that position. I said, “Of course. We have been advocating for this for over 10 years.”

Even after the riot there was pushback against a policy. Although the councilman favored a policy change, Mayor Sanders, indicated that he thought a total ban was an overreaction and threatened to veto an ordinance. He also prohibited any police or lifeguards from speaking about a policy change or providing the official information that would allow San Diegans at large to become aware of the seriousness of the problems at the beach. The San Diegans for Safe Beaches committee needed that information and needed safety officers to provide it.

For several years prior to the riot a reality TV show, “Beach Patrol” had been documenting the alcohol problems at San Diego Beaches with images of binge drinking, beer bongs, violence, lewd behavior, drunk young people staggering and passed out. “Beach Patrol” also had dozens of interviews with lifeguards, police and fire/rescue officers describing the problems and even their discussion describing and preparing for riotous conditions. Those interviews and video and the testimony of residents were the evidence needed to convince the city council to vote unanimously for a one-year alcohol free trial.

Conditions at the beach improved immediately as police began to remind, and then enforce, the no drinking policy. During the 2008 July Fourth holiday police noticed a significant reduction in alcohol-related problems. The night of the Fourth police officers were sent home early when in previous years there were never enough officers to respond to all the calls for service. And conditions continued to improve not only at the beach but at the bay and coastal parks.

But what would happen after the year trial was up and the images of the riot had faded? The opposition to alcohol-free beaches had been calling for a public vote. After a lot of consideration the San Diegans for Safe Beaches committee decided to also support a public vote. Without a vote of the people, the city council or mayor could rescind or change the policy virtually at will. The city council agreed and so a campaign was launched.

Dozens of local residents took the lead to encourage hundreds of others to get involved and support the committee’s efforts and fund raising. Residents in La Jolla and Ocean Beach who had also been dealing with alcohol problems at their beaches joined in. Other nearby communities including Imperial Beach, Del Mar, Encinitas, and Solana Beach noticed problems related to overconsumption of alcohol increasing at their beaches and also took action. The crime and public safety information gathered by Pacific Beach residents allowed other city councils to consider the issue effectively and take the appropriate action.

A hard fought campaign ensued with opposition coming from the beach drinking crowd, Free PB (Free Parks and Beaches), and the Neighborhood Grocers Association. At the November 2008 election Prop D, alcohol-free beaches was supported by 53% of the voters.

The community members are still organized and advocating for policies that can further improve Pacific Beach. Winning the beach alcohol fight sent a message to many who said it couldn’t be done — that you CAN change city hall and with facts, organization, and persistence; that change for the better is possible. Some new grass roots committees have formed and more local residents are involved than ever. Local parents are more involved at the schools and the schools are improving rather dramatically.

Earlier this month Money Magazine ranked Pacific Beach as one of the nation’s best big-city neighborhoods to live in! (August 12, 2013) Two of our schools, PB Middle and Sessions Elementary, are named as “among the best in the city”!

Pacific Beach has a long way to go to meet our potential. Violent crime, DUI and drunkenness are still way too common in the business district. But positive change is in the wind for PB and that wind increased dramatically with the change in alcohol policy at the beach.

Scott Chipman can be contacted at:
619 990 7480

Comments are closed.