Opinion: Daily Journal

Arguments against fixing broken N.C. ABC system old, tired

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, March 7, with comments from Wake County ABC General Manager Ike Wheeler.

A week or so ago, a group of people who don’t like the idea of people drinking liquor got together to denounce efforts to privatize the state monopoly on alcohol sales, storage, and distribution.

The group included representatives from the General Assembly, law enforcement, and — never to be left out of any discussion that centers on railing against alcohol — the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League.

They played all the usual notes of concern — easier access to alcohol for minors and problem drinkers, loss of local revenue, increased crime, etc.

The N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which oversees some 170 boards throughout the state, is irrevocably broken. It’s archaic, draconian, and should have been fixed long ago.

It’s useless for media outlets to continue reporting on “news” conferences such as the one led by Creech, who, simply put, would be thrilled to reenact Prohibition. Nothing more, in regard to his thoughts — and the thoughts of those with similar mindsets — needs saying.

But there’s a twist here.

Not long after the news conference, the Wake County ABC board posted on Facebook a “thank you” — photos, included — to Creech and the gang. I asked on the post whether it was appropriate for an ABC board — a government entity — to appear as if it’s supporting efforts to thwart legislation to change the monopolistic system.

A short time later I tried to return to the post. It was gone.

Wake County ABC General Manager Ike Wheeler said in an email that he was aware of the post. “It was taken down because individuals started disputing with each other, and that is not the purpose of the site,” he wrote.

Employees of the N.C. ABC, members of the boards, and workers in the more than 430 government-run stores around the state want to keep the status quo. Well, of course they do.

But it’s important they remember that, as government employees, their job is to implement and adhere to rules and laws enacted by the General Assembly and, in some cases, county and city entities. Their duties are many, and these are often complicated. Yet supporting or opposing pending legislation, in an official capacity — as an arm of government — shouldn’t be among them.

Expect a slew of bills this session that aim to reform liquor laws in North Carolina. Moves, for example, allowing distilleries to sell mixed drinks, giving local governments the option of operating ABC stores on Sunday, and allowing spirituous liquor tastings at ABC stores. Lawmakers will introduce measures aimed at helping North Carolina distilleries, which are treated far differently by the state than are breweries and wineries.

Some of the discussions around fixing the system — replacing local money, for instance — are valid. And, yes, it’s critical that we keep liquor away from minors, and that we, as a community, reach out and help problem drinkers.

But some arguments are just plain hyperbolic.

Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, as reported by the Insider, said during the news conference that, if the system goes private, as many as 9,000 stores in North Carolina could be selling liquor.

That reasoning, based on retailers now selling beer and wine, is dubious at best.

As my colleague Jon Sanders has pointed out, the idea that government control of liquor distribution and bottle sales somehow makes us safer is an old and tired belief. Yes, beer and wine are widely available throughout the state — in bars, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations. …

Alcohol is alcohol, whether it’s a dram of whiskey, a glass of wine, or pint of beer. North Carolina maintains a mysterious bias against spirituous liquor, which, so far, no opponent of reforming the N.C. ABC has begun to explain, in terms either scientific or empirical.

This debate — repeating myself yet again — isn’t about alcohol, yet defenders of the status quo will use the same frayed and threadbare arguments. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they probably think, if all liquor simply evaporated into the ether.

But wait, they think again. The state has a stranglehold on one of the world’s most innovative, vibrant, and thriving markets. A market that last year amounted to $1 billion in revenue — an all-time high — for North Carolina.

Stratistics MRC says the Global Alcoholic beverages market accounted for $1,324.1 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $1,864.2 billion by 2026, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 3.9 percent during the forecast period.

Change things in North Carolina? Why, never.