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EDITORIAL: Liquor laws fail us again

September 10, 2016

Prohibition ended in 1933. Since then, most states have worked out an acceptable framework for the sale of beer, wine and liquor. Indiana is not among them, a deficiency currently exposed by the unfolding battle over whether Spirited Sales LLC should be allowed to operate in the state as a liquor wholesaler. It’s but the latest reminder that the Legislature should bring into the modern era state statutes that govern the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Indiana is the only state that prohibits beer and wine wholesalers from also selling liquor. That’s long been a thorn in the side of Monarch Beverage Co., the state’s largest beer wholesaler. Enter Spirited Sales, which isn’t technically part of Monarch but whose parent company and Monarch have common ownership. A Marion County judge recently found that the state’s Alcohol & Tobacco Commission had acted arbitrarily in denying Spirited Sales a liquor permit, a decision being appealed by the state.

The battle pitting Monarch against the state and other liquor wholesalers is part of a larger war waged by Monarch to reform state liquor laws. Efforts at legislative change have stalled, and previous efforts to have Indiana’s wholesale law deemed unconstitutional have failed. But even in ruling against Monarch, judges don’t always hide their dim view of state statute.

Marion Superior Judge Tim Oakes dismissed a Monarch lawsuit last year, but not before striking a sympathetic chord. “The court does agree with plaintiff ... that the unique ... system set up by the Indiana Legislature is, by today’s standards, silly, unnecessary, inefficient, and a convoluted system with little merit that restricts free and open trade.”

Shorter, coarser versions of Oakes’ lament are common among Hoosier consumers, who’ve long complained about their inability to buy alcohol on Sundays or pick up cold beer at a convenience store or grocery store. Try explaining those to a visitor from out of state. Equally perplexing are the arcane rules that govern where a minor can sit in an establishment that sells liquor, or why we wait while an underage sales clerk seeks out an older co-worker to drag a six-pack across the scanner.

Convenience stores have repeatedly tried both the legislative and judicial routes to win the right to sell cold beer. Retailers are also routinely rebuffed in their attempts to sell on Sunday what they can legally sell Monday through Saturday.

Defenders of the state’s peculiar liquor laws typically cite a couple of arguments. One is that Indiana’s laws keep alcohol out of the hands of minors. The other is that the current structure preserves competition among the various players.

We’re not convinced. Adequate checks exist to keep minors safe. Where competition is concerned, consumers, not legislators, should be picking winners and losers.•

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