Opinion: CJ Opinion

Arcane N.C. ABC caters to college kids, problems drinkers, and the poor

(CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
(CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

The roots of the N.C. ABC extend to Prohibition, the unintended consequences of which shattered the country. The Alcoholic Beverage Control system, as designed, was meant to control the sale and consumption of liquor. 

It has done anything but. 

Rather, this antique system has enabled problem drinkers, even catering to alcoholics needing a large quantity of low-quality liquor. It has forced suppliers and distillers to devise novel ways of getting around the system, through direct shipments and clandestine backroom deals, for example.

It’s now more painfully apparent than ever. North Carolina has never been a bastion for hard-to-find spirits, but shelves that once held high-end Scotch, tequila, and bourbon now carry signs that, to paraphrase, say, “Sorry, our system for procuring and stocking this brand is broken and irreparable. Try South Carolina.” 

Many state lawmakers know this thing is a horrible mess. Others refuse to admit it, and others would relegate all alcohol to the bottom of the sea.

Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, and other members of the N.C. House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee spent more than two hours Sept. 29 trying to determine what’s going on with the N.C. ABC Commission and warehouse operator LB&B Associates.

Lots of questions, but few answers.

Moffitt, the House ABC committee chair, says lawmakers will continue to dig deeper, taking the figurative deep-dive. The investigation — make no mistake, that’s what it now is — was referred to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, then, for legislative reasons, referred back to the House. That detailed report is forthcoming, and, at least for the ABC and LB&B, it won’t be pretty.

Remember, LB&B was the target of an audit in 2018 that has, over previous years, cost the state about $13.5 million. The ABC concurred with the audit and promised to fix the myriad issues, including a focus on accountability and efficient delivery.

So much for that, apparently. In March, the ABC Commission voted unanimously to recommend the state award a new 10-year contract to LB&B. In September, A.D. Zander Guy Jr. abruptly resigned as chairman of the ABC Commission. Spokesman Jeff Strickland is good at his job, yet he offered no additional information, though other media outlets said Guy attributed his departure to stress.

Lawmakers in November asked leadership or staff from LB&B to meet with lawmakers to explain why ABC stores around the state have so many empty shelves. LB&B, said Moffitt, told him the company can’t spare anyone to speak with lawmakers. During the meeting, probably the last for the ABC committee this session, Moffitt referred to it as “a scheduling conflict.”

Lawmakers, to be clear, want to meet with a member of the company, not with outside counsel.

“I’m disappointed,” Moffitt told Carolina Journal, “that the warehouse operator for all distilled spirits in the state did not work harder to have someone here to answer our questions.

“This is the legislature.”

Exactly. And it’s that same legislature that needs to fix this mess. It’s easy to see why some lawmakers rail against and vote down any measure that would help that state’s burgeoning liquor industry, so long shackled by these ancient and cumbersome rules. 

The state’s so-called control system was never meant to control anything. Rather, it was meant to appease prohibitionists and stuff town coffers. But those who continue to see distilled spirits as anathema have become, unwittingly or not, ardent proponents for liquor privatization.

Let this forthcoming report be the last swig from the rotgut batch of state liquor control. During the height of COVID shutdowns last year, bars and restaurants closed while state ABC stores remained open, a prime example of the pesky hands of government reaching for our wallets and purses. Think Soviet Union, circa 1975.

For its part, the ABC Commission has created an ABC Board Advisory Committee, which will meet quarterly to provide recommendations to the commission related to allocated products and other distribution-related issues. Ok, we’ll see.

The state has more than 400 ABC stores and counting, all pockmarked by empty shelves, as well as tons of cheap, factory-produced liquor. The bottles of choice for college kids, problem drinkers, and the poor. It’s well past time to take a hard, meaningful look at the morass. I’m talking to you, lawmakers and bureaucrats who continue to fight deregulation and prop up this failed system.

Take a shot and feel the burn. This is what you’ve wrought.

John Trump is managing editor of Carolina Journal and author of  “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State.