Opinion: Daily Journal

On alcohol reform, state lawmakers have finally started to listen

The view from above at Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo.
The view from above at Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo.

State lawmakers, to their credit, have started to listen.

The loudest proponents of alcohol reform in North Carolina — lawmakers such as Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance — now have their colleagues’ unwavering attention.

Finally.

Breweries and wineries are now free of the long-time restrictive and tired rules from an overbearing parent, that being the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Brewers and vintners have prospered as a result. They are, in fact, thriving.

Now, Gunn recently told a legislative committee, it’s time for us to do the same thing for N.C. craft distilleries.

At the risk of muddling the separation of church and state: Amen.

Prohibitionists and those worried about giving up what’s become a local entitlement — revenue generated by a proliferation of politically motivated ABC boards — remain, but their voices are now soft, their arguments mostly inaudible.

Too much is at stake — tourism, jobs, the economy, duh — to maintain the state’s chokehold on N.C. craft distillers.

We think it’s time the state rid itself of the cumbersome ABC board system. That it’s time, rather, turn to a licensure model, for instance, as McGrady has proposed. Or even a centralized system, such as Virginia’s. Dissolution of the boards may well happen. Someday.

As the state’s distillers have often said: Baby steps. Problem is, our neighbors have broken into, if not a full sprint, then a pretty decent jog when it comes to modernizing liquor sales.

Nationally, the mood is changing, too.

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Tennessee law that prevented new residents from getting a license to sell liquor. The law had required people to live in the state for two years before they could apply for the license.

A Utah couple, Doug and Mary Ketchum, and Total Wine, challenged the law. As The New York Times wrote, the Ketchum family moved to Memphis in the hope the weather there would be better for their disabled daughter. A federal appeals court struck down the two-year residency requirement, saying it violated the Constitution by discriminating against new residents.

The question in Tennessee Wine And Spirits Retailers Assn. v. Thomas was whether the 21st Amendment gave states the authority to pass laws in violation of the Commerce Clause. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority in the 7-to-2 decision, the Times wrote, said the amendment failed to authorize states to discriminate against new residents. ‘“Because Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement for retail license applicants blatantly favors the state’s residents,’ the Times reporting says, ‘and has little relationship to public health and safety, it is unconstitutional.’”

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, which advocates for consumer choice and freedom. He’s speaking in general, but, clearly, North Carolina may well be the unavoidable target for his comments.

“In many southern states and beyond, alcohol-control laws are some of the most byzantine and backward on the books. Indeed, many have not changed in the 86 years since the end of Prohibition.

“These laws treat adults like children, stunt economic growth, deprive consumers of better choices, and drastically increase costs for everyday people who just want a drink at the end of a hard day’s work.”

McGrady takes that argument a step further. His district includes the sprawling Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River.

“A lot of times it’s much older legislators, who will freely admit either they don’t drink any alcoholic beverages or don’t … buy beer or wine or haven’t been any of the new facilities,” McGrady said.

They would do well to take a look, if only for the sake of N.C. craft distillers, as well as the state’s consumers.

“Really, in four or five years we’ve gotten a lot of movement. A few more retirements over the years and, more importantly, more exposure, as these little small businesses — distilleries, breweries, cideries, wineries  — become part of the community, those legislators are going to recognize that,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of lot at stake, and these things bring people into the area. I think I think we’re winning the battle.”

It’s a battle, though, that’s still far from over.