Relaxing Liquor Laws

Dec 13, 2011

Back in the 1980s, The Detroit News had an excellent editor named Lionel Linder, who did his best to improve the intellectual quality of the newspaper.

Later, after the ownership changed, he became editor of a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. On New Year’s Eve 19 years ago, he left work in early afternoon to go home. Unfortunately, he drove across the path of a deadbeat who had been drinking package liquor in his car since morning, and at that very moment passed out with all his weight on the accelerator.

They had to use dental records to formally identify Lionel’s body. Virtually all of us know stories like that, and that’s why a lot of us have been a little concerned at the possibility that the state may greatly relax its rules regarding alcohol.

For the past few months, an ad hoc group called the Liquor Control Rules Advisory Committee has been looking at how alcohol is regulated in this state, and is expected to make recommendations to the governor soon. This is part of a broader effort to look at bureaucratic regulations in government, with an eye to both streamlining services and saving money.

Nothing wrong with that. But what worries me is this. Since this is an advisory panel only, it isn’t subject to the state Open Meetings act. We don’t know who they have been meeting with, though some fear that the deck has been stacked in favor of those eager to sell more liquor so they can make more money.

This is a problem America has been wrestling with forever, as anyone knows who saw Ken Burns’s excellent documentary Prohibition on public television earlier this fall. I am anything but ideological about it myself; I only drink wine in moderation.

A year ago, those concerned about alcohol abuse were deeply worried when Michigan ended a statewide ban on alcohol sales before noon on Sundays. I thought relaxing this ban made perfect sense. Before this, every so often I would be sent to shop on Sunday mornings, forget the rule, pick up a bottle of cooking sherry at the grocery store, and then have it confiscated by the cashier with a look that indicated she thought I was a skid row wino.

Relaxing this rule seems to have slightly boosted alcohol sales, by about four percent, and meant just under a million dollars in new state revenue. But there’s something people are now talking about that worries me. Some are proposing allowing liquor to be sold at gas stations. That strikes me as highly dangerous.

I’ve seen emotional guys walk into gas station convenience stores late at night after having lost their job or after a huge fight with their girlfriend. Having a fifth of bourbon on the shelf next to the Kleenex strikes me as risky.

There’s a reason hardware stores don’t stock the kerosene next to the matches. I would be a lot more comfortable if the governor had asked the liquor advisory panel to hold its hearings in public.

Failing that, I hope we can rely on common sense triumphing over any deregulation ideology.

I can be as libertarian as the next guy, but want most of all the freedom from being killed on the highway through no fault of my own.