States Revisit Prohibition-Era Booze Laws

By: - July 7, 2008 12:00 am

Seventy-five years after the repeal of Prohibition, state lawmakers across the country are marking the anniversary by relaxing or eliminating some laws that have restricted alcohol sales since as long ago as the 1930s.

Colorado this week became the 35th state – and 13 th since 2002 – to allow residents to buy alcohol on Sundays when a measure that won the approval of the General Assembly and Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in April formally took effect. The new law replaces a 1933 state statute forcing liquor stores to close on Sundays, and also allows Coloradans to buy normal-strength beer on Sundays. Residents previously could purchase only reduced-strength beer, with 3.2-percent alcohol or less.

In Idaho , lawmakers did away with another Prohibition-era law that prevented liquor sales on Election Day. The original measure, approved in 1939, was intended to prevent the trading of alcohol for votes, and its repeal means that, for the first time in generations, Idahoans can toast their candidates by buying spirits on the same day they vote for president this November.

In Virginia , meanwhile, lawmakers repealed an obscure state law that banned restaurants from mixing liquor with wine or beer. The statute, likely intended to prevent public drunkenness after Prohibition was repealed, had modern-day consequences: It meant that restaurants couldn’t legally serve authentic, Spanish-style sangria – a mix of brandy, wine and triple-sec. As of this month, however, traditional sangria is again on the menu in the commonwealth.  

Those and other recent revisions to alcohol laws, enacted by some of the 40 state legislatures that have wrapped up their work so far this year, come more than seven decades after the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1933, reauthorizing the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol nationwide. The 21 st Amendment repealed the 18 th Amendment of 1919, when Congress and 36 states agreed to ban alcohol across the country after bowing to heavy pressure from temperance organizations.

Politicians, alcohol industry lobbyists and others who helped usher in the recent revisions in the states say the new laws reflect the public’s evolving views toward liquor and beer regulation.  

“People’s attitudes are maturing,” said David Wojnar, vice president for state government relations with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States , which lobbies on behalf of the liquor industry. Wojnar said many state alcohol laws are “vestiges of Prohibition” that hurt businesses and serve few modern practical purposes, leading state legislatures to take action.

Not everyone is happy about the changes, however. In Colorado , owners of supermarkets and other stores that sell weaker beer – traditionally the only kind available in the state on Sundays – have complained that the opening of liquor shops will draw away their customers. To compete, they are pushing the General Assembly to approve full-strength beer sales in their stores. Currently, only liquor stores can sell full-strength beer in Colorado .  

In socially conservative Utah , which has some of the strictest alcohol laws on the books, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) has called for “greater normalcy” in the state’s liquor and beer regulation. But while proponents of more relaxed laws this year were able to push through a proposal increasing the amount of alcohol in a standard cocktail from 1 ounce to 1.5 ounces – which most states use – they had to make concessions to those opposed to loosening liquor controls.

One such concession is that Utah no longer allows grocery stores to sell wine coolers; only liquor stores now can sell them. The state also prohibited residents from ordering so-called “sidecars,” or extra shots of alcohol that customers can add to drinks already in front of them. Huntsman has said he will push for further changes to the state’s booze laws next year.  

Among the most obscure Prohibition-era statutes to be revised this year was a 1933 Wisconsin law prohibiting municipal officials from selling products or services to bars or other establishments with liquor licenses.

The law, originally intended to prevent conflicts of interest in the days when municipal officials – not the state – approved liquor licenses, drew attention when a local elected official in the city of Stevens Point was forced to resign a year ago after it became known that he ran a business that sold vacuum cleaners to pubs and restaurants.  

Several other municipal officials around Wisconsin also were forced to step down, leading state Rep. Louis Molepske (D) to introduce a bill amending the old law. Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed Molepske’s bill into law in March.

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