Crisis Highlights Folly of State Liquor Laws
If there is one thing that we have learned during the current State of Emergency in Marland related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that or state liquor laws really need to catch up.
The laws in Maryland currently state:
- A bar or restaurant could not package draft beer or cocktails to-go;
- A bar or restaurant could not deliver beer or cocktails;
- Breweries could not sell more than 5,000 barrels of their own beer in their taprooms.
With the flick of a pen, those three regulations and laws have temporarily been wiped away. Governor Larry Hogan allowed to-go cocktails and alcohol delivery as part of his State of Emergency declaration closing restaurant dining rooms. Comptroller Peter Franchot de facto eliminated barrel limits in taprooms by announcing that his office would simply not enforce the law.
And just like that, Maryland had reasonable liquor laws for a time.
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That’s of course not to say that there haven’t been hiccups. Montgomery County’s liquor monopoly has, as it always seems to be, getting in the way of progress and tried to contradict the state orders. But it is still progress.
This, however, does highlight just how archaic or alcohol laws in Maryland are, something that we’ve been talking about for years. Maryland’s alcohol regime remains a complex patchwork of laws that generally empowers those who are already established. Alcohol companies are required to sell their products to distributors, who sell the products to liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. Liquor stores are generally the one place where you can get to-alcohol to take home with you. It’s a nice little system, basically in place since prohibition, that makes people in the system a whole lot of money and a direct line to the most establishment of politicians.
The first few days have shown us that once things get back to normal the entire alcohol regime needs to get thrown out. There is no bad outcome from allowing bars and restaurants to sell beers and cocktails to go. There is no bad outcome from allowing bars and restaurants to deliver beer and spirits as part of their delivery service; heck, you could argue it’s a societal benefit in that it keeps more people from drinking and driving. And there certainly has never been any logical requirement for limiting brewers to how much of their own products they could sell on their own premises.
When we return to normalcy, the General Assembly should get to work disassembling Maryland’s eighty-year-old liquor mess. To-go drinks, alcohol delivery, and unlimited sales at taprooms should be the norm, not the exception. And let’s go even further, eliminating the distributor regime, allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine, and allowing customers to order alcoholic drinks through the mail.
If we can live with these changes in liquor laws during a State of Emergency, we can certainly live with permanent changes during normal times.