Alcohol Regulation Roundup: Columbus Day Edition

Alcohol has a long and complex history in the USA. In fact, it’s probable that the Scandinavian Vikings that tried to conquer North America in the 10th century had plenty of mead on board their ships. While Christopher Columbus never actually stepped foot in the land we know now as the United States, he definitely made it to the Caribbean islands where he introduced sugar cane and kick-started the vibrant tradition of rum-making so many Americans enjoy today. But since the earliest days of settlement, a fight has been going on between those who want less alcohol and greater government oversight and those who believe alcohol should be cheaper and easier to make or purchase. Below are a few notable developments from various states.

National: As I wrote about last February, a Sioux tribe in South Dakota filed a lawsuit against beer stores and national beer manufacturers such as Anheuser-Busch. The tribe claimed that the stores and makers supplied alcohol to members of the reservation where alcohol is prohibited, causing $500 million worth of damages. This week, the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in Nebraska who said the case belonged in a state court.

Alabama: Prohibition is alive and well in the Heart of Dixie. Newspapers reported that a small beer, wine, and homebrew supply store was raided by agents from the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC). An attorney for ABC says it wasn’t a raid. They didn’t break down any doors, but they seize $7,000 worth of merchandise like boxes of beer brewing kits, carboys, immersion chillers, and books about brewing. Well, just as long as it isn’t a “raid.” Hopefully 2013 will be the year that Alabama legalizes home brewing. Mississippi and Alabama are the only two states that maintain the home beer brewing ban.

Also in Alabama, lawmakers are beginning to talk about how to reduce the state’s involvement in alcohol sales. Currently, it is one of eight states that maintains government-run retail liquor stores. Proponents claim that privatizing retail liquor sales could save the state between $40 million and $50 million dollars a year.

Illinois: Unlike Alabama and Mississippi, Illinois does allow home brewing. Unfortunately, the way that the law is written only allows home makers of beer, wine, liquor, or cider to serve their creation to members of their family or guests in their home. They are prohibited from distributing their products, entering competitions, or even giving out free samples at events or festivals. Luckily, State Rep. Keith Farnham released a draft of a bill he hopes will change the law in the coming year.

Michigan: Two proposals under consideration could make way for more liquor licenses in Michigan. The House passed both HB 5877, which creates “economic development liquor licenses” at a rate of 1 license per 1,500 residents in a municipality, as well as HB 5488, which allows for “conditional liquor licenses” while applicants wait for the Control Commission to issue a final determination.

New Jersey: Gov. Christie signs legislation to ease the regulatory burden on the Garden State’s small brewers. Prior to the new law, brew pubs were only allowed to make 3,000 barrels a year and were only allowed to sell their beer at their brewpub restaurant. The new law allows New Jersey brewpubs to make up to 10,000 barrels a year and to sell their beer to distributors to get their beer in liquor stores and other restaurants.

Oregon: A representative of northwest grocers told Oregon lawmakers at a House Business and Labor Committee meeting to update their liquor laws in 2013 or face a ballot initiative. Since the lobbyist, Joe Gilliam, worked with grocers to pass the Washington State initiative last year, lawmakers are taking his threat seriously. If the voters have their say, it’s very likely that the government monopoly on liquor sales would be tossed out. Rather than take their chances with whatever privatization initiative made it to the ballot box (likely one sponsored by a business), many lawmakers would prefer to have privatization happen on their terms so they might guarantee that tax revenue was not affected.

Pennsylvania: As the pressure to liberalize alcohol laws increases throughout the nation, Pennsylvania’s liquor control board is looking for ways to appease critics who say the state’s system of separating beer, wine, liquor, and groceries is out of date. Republican lawmakers proposed a plan to do away with the LCB’s state-run stores and sell licenses for private liquor stores,  as well as allowing beer wholesalers to sell six-packs (they currently must sell by the case).

As an alternative to throwing out state-run stores (and bid to save the current system), the LCB says it is studying three “laboratory” grocery stores with a spirits outlet inside the grocery store that sells wine, spirits, and beer. The LCB hopes to open more of these liquor marts within or next to grocery stores within the next decade — a plan they have dubbed “Convenience 2020.” With each passing year it seems more Pennsylvanians grow exasperated with the PALCB and it’s doubtful that their modest 2020 proposal will appease the growing tide of consumers who want freedom in the alcohol market.

Virginia: Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld a statewide ban on alcohol ads in college newspapers, claiming that student papers do not have First Amendment rights. Here’s hoping the decision gets the attention of constitutional rights scholars.

Texas: A free speech fight is heating up in the Lone Star State, which bans brewpubs from displaying signs outside of the building that let potential patrons know they make their own beer. While Texas has made some great strides in recent years to update its silly alcohol laws, it’s clear they have a long way to go.

Also in Texas, some are calling for increased beer taxes to raise state revenue. An analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities told lawmakers that raising taxes on beer and also sugary drinks to raise revenue for the public education system.

Washington: The state liquor control board is currently considering a proposal that would allow home delivery of liquor. If approved, delivery persons who are 21 or older from grocery or liquor stores would be allowed to deliver liquor between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m.