Liquor-license law structure misguided

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I’m a proud liquor license holder who enjoys all the benefits and duties associated with the license. I don’t have a grudge or an axe to grind. On the contrary, I find the local authorities to be appropriately concerned and vigilant about what matters most: upholding the letter of the law and ensuring safe drinking in this town.

But, as a citizen of this state who has some knowledge of the liquor law, I have some concerns that I’d like to share with like-minded entrepreneurs who are unaware of how misguided our legal structure remains when it comes to liquor licenses.

These laws can be changed by the public, they are not handed down from Mount Sinai. Yet the level of control, scrutiny and constraint (on who can manufacture spirits and what licenses one must have to distribute liquor, and the conditions under which consumption of alcoholic beverages is permitted) are beyond anything that free enterprise or American capitalism would ever suspect.

Instead, these are outdated laws and regulations that are more reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.

First, you must buy all your liquor from approved distributors only. You cannot buy wine directly from vineyards or distilleries. This means that if a certain wine or liquor isn’t sold through the accredited distributors, you are not allowed to buy it. This means that even the father of a bride who owns a vineyard cannot ship his wine directly to the facility for his daughter’s wedding!

Second, because of the constraints on who is allowed to sell what spirits in this state, if a bar owner wants to buy a particular vodka, for example, s/he must buy it from the one distributor who is licensed to sell this particular vodka. This, therefore, gives the distributor a monopoly power to command whatever price it deems right. No competition is allowed, since other distributors don’t have the license to sell that particular vodka. Given national branding and marketing, owners who respond to their clients’ requests are bound to deal with one lucky distributor and one only. The local bar cannot shop for the “best deal” because there is only one deal in the state. Moreover, it’s illegal to buy directly from out of state distributors or producers.

Third, the buying power of a single bar or restaurant or liquor-store owner is limited. In an open market, you can increase your bargaining power if you joined other buyers and created economies-of-scale to counterweight the selling power of distributors. In our state you cannot buy together or buy from a large store that can afford to buy hundreds of cases at a time. You stand alone and have no bargaining power.

Fourth, you are not allowed to let your customers bring their own wine or liquor into a restaurant. Wine collectors and connoisseurs cannot bring wines from their private collections to dinner, while less-affluent diners cannot buy inexpensive wines at the liquor store and bring them into restaurants. It simply is not permitted.

Fifth, restaurants cannot sell liquor as retailers and retailers cannot sell liquor as restaurants; under some circumstances liquor stores can have “tastings” and under some circumstances restaurants can let their guests leave the restaurant with an open but corked bottle of wine.

These are just a few examples of how state liquor laws are overly restrictive and outdated.

As some legal thinkers have argued for decades, not all human activities should be regulated by laws: they can be left open to social conventions, moral norms and cultural habits.

Should there be state laws regarding alcohol?

Of course, just as there should be laws about which side of the road to drive on. We all like some commonsense regulations that prevent disasters and minimize dangerous behavior, that protect us from others and at times from ourselves. But this alone doesn’t justify silliness in our liquor laws, including drinking-age restrictions.

We have created an untenable situation when it comes to the legal classification of adulthood: 14-year-olds can choose where to live in a divorce case; 16-year-olds can drive; 18-year-olds can vote, join the military, smoke cigarettes, marry and have sex; and only 21-year-olds can drink.

So you can die protecting your country but can’t have a beer at a bar when you return as a civilian. You are rational and mature enough to vote for the president and your local representatives but you aren’t mature enough to drink.

This inconsistency is hypocritical and we all swallow it without protest.

My plea, then, is about logical consistency as an antidote to hypocrisy: make sure liquor laws make sense to us who still believe in American freedom and individual rights, in the free marketplace and the possibility that we all deserve to be treated fairly and equally, that we can pursue our dreams (of selling liquor or serving drinks at bars and restaurants) without some Big Brother watching our every move. If we turn out to be criminals and tax-evaders or cheats, then by all means prosecute us; but other than that, let us be free to sell and buy what we want and however we want to do so.

Sassower is a professor of philosophy at UCCS and the proprietor and general manager of Il Postino restaurant, which has a liquor license.