The foolishness of 21st century prohibition

A blog posting on Second Opinion about Sen. Joan Carter Conway's "unusual step of threatening not to allow the legislation to come up for a committee vote at all":

February 8, 2010

The foolishness of 21st century prohibition

In this volatile political atmosphere, elected officials who take actions contrary to the views of voters are likely to find the electorate unforgiving this November. It is a powerful theme that Republicans have been using to great effect in Washington of late: the perceived gap between public opinion and public policy.

Amazingly, Sen. Joan Carter Conway is pursuing precisely that folly with her recent disclosure that she opposes legislation to allow Marylanders to have bottles of wine shipped directly to their homes. Polls show the public favors the law, and a majority of the General Assembly have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

But Senator Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, is doing far more than opposing the bill; she’s taken the unusual step of threatening not to allow the legislation to come up for a committee vote at all.

Such a desk-drawer veto would not only thwart the legislative process (six of nine committee members are among the co-sponsors) but demonstrate a political hubris with which Democrats ought not be comfortable.

The Baltimore senator has said her chief concern is that somehow the proposal would facilitate under-age drinking. She’s also suggested that it might be difficult for the state to collect appropriate excise and sales taxes from out-of-state wineries.

But neither claim holds much water, let alone wine. Shipping wine is legal in more than two-thirds of states, where neither concern has materialized as a serious problem.

The under-age drinking claim is particularly nonsensical. Under the proposal, United Parcel Service and FedEx are the only two potential shippers. Both have proven themselves reliable in other states, and their drivers must check photo ID of wine recipients to make sure they are 21 years old – just as any clerk or waitress in a liquor store, bar or restaurant must do.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that minors find it far easier to ask an older friend or relative to buy alcohol for them and it’s not usually the kind of boutique wine that ends up bubble-wrapped in shipping boxes. In Maryland, there are approximately 6,300 liquor stores, bars and restaurants where a straw purchase can take place. Why would anyone wait a week for an expensive direct shipment for which they’d need an adult to sign?

Taxes have also not proven to be a serious obstacle in other states. Wineries are only too pleased to pay taxes to the state where a bottle is delivered instead of where it was produced. It’s all the same to them.

Certainly, there are more pressing issues before the state legislature this year than making it possible for average people to have wine shipped to them. The recession, falling tax revenues, and projected budget deficits have left many in Annapolis with important, albeit unpopular, choices to make.

But few issues better underscore why voters are suspicious of government in this state: the influence of the liquor lobby, the coziness of regulators with the alcohol industry (Senator Conway’s spouse is a longtime Baltimore liquor inspector) and the willingness of leaders to blithely ignore the public’s wishes.

Legalizing direct shipment is good for consumers and good for Maryland’s wine industry. Such obvious benefits should easily trump the objections of self-interested liquor wholesalers, retailers and even regulators who seek to preserve Maryland’s antiquated liquor laws. Woe to any politician who thinks the voters won’t notice such a glaring example of arrogance.

Comments

"she’s taken the unusual step of threatening not to allow the legislation to come up for a committee vote at all."

Why do you say it is an "unusual" step?

Ask Joe Vallario how many pro 2nd Amendment bills HE has left in his desk drawer?

Ludicrous! Where is this woman living! Oh, yeah, she represents arguably the drug/murder capital of the country. No wonder she wants to focus on something else.

I live in Mt. Washington and don't understand why I can't join a wine-of-the-month club but my brother, who lives in Fairfax, Va., can. Thanks for letting me know it's the fault of my own state senator.

As with all good crime and political stories...

FOLLOW THE MONEY!

The likelihood of an underage person signing for a shipment intended for another household member, is as likely as that person taking wine that is already in the house. Most people that I know that would buy and ship wine have large collections.

Andy Green has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. That means he does not know enough about anything.

Minors already gain access to alcohol despite attempts to regulate and prevent them from doing so. In general, minors prefer beer and cheap alcohol. They make spontaneous decisions to have a party. So, for example, some high school kids at 6PM on a Saturday night might plot to figure out how to gain access to alcohol for what they perceive to be a "fun" evening.
What minors do not do is review expensive wine magazines and advertising mailers from boutique wineries in California, and order a case of wine to be shipped to them, charging it on a credit card, and ordering it two weeks in anticipation of the party.
What minors do is to enlist the aid of persons of age (friends, older siblings and relatives) to buy beer or other alcohol.
I really don't think the passage of this law would modify the behavior of minors.

I suppose there would be concern that a case of wine is delivered to a home by the UPS delivery worker and a minor receives it. The minor then cracks open the case and drinks while his parents are away. Again, this type of alcohol is not typically the beverage of choice of minors and, frankly, persons who order these types of wines are likely to have, in the household, many other bottles of wine which the minor could access, with or without the shipment. If the minor is inclined to raid the household wine cellar, the delivery of another case is irrelevant, and the minor will find alcohol in the house.

With regard to the concern relating to taxation, I don't think that it is reasonable to assume that wineries out of state will be serial violators of Maryland's law. Also, the law providers for personal jurisdiction in Maryland Courts for civil matters, and it should be relatively easy to obtain a judgment against a shipper in a Maryland court for any civil violation of the law, or failure to remit taxes. As an attorney, I can tell you that it would be much harder to defend such an action by an out of state shipper than for the state to bring it. Of course, that judgment can easily be recorded in the shipper's state and enforced there. I would think, however, that out of state wineries would welcome the additional outlet for sales, and I know that Maryland's wineries would welcome the opportunity to ship to other states. Computer software being what it is, it should be very easy for a shipper to keep track of and account for Maryland sales.

Of course, the state currently loses out on much greater tax revenues from internet sales for clothing, computers, electronics, books, and a host of other things through sites such as Amazon.com and numerous other catalogue sales companies. This is the reality of the new economy. Many consumers simply prefer shopping on line. The economy changes. Local alcohol beverage and wine stores really have no reason to be concerned because the overwhelmingly large percentage of wines sold are comparatively inexpensive, and their sales are unlikely to be affected except trivially. No one is going to pay shipping charges to get wines that are locally available. In addition, as I understand it, the law would only apply to wine shipped from other states in the US. A very large percentage of wine consumed in the US and in Maryland comes from Australia, Italy, Chile, France, Argentina and Germany, and those sales would continue to be only from the established wine stores in Maryland.

Imagine the outcry if the Maryland legislature were to ban its citizens from purchasing books and other items from Amazon.com due to the loss of tax revenue, or banning Marylanders from ordering clothing on the internet? Why would Marylanders scream? Because we love the freedom to purchase what we want from our own personal favorite store or vendor, and do not believe the government, though it has a legitimate desire to tax sales, should impede this freedom.
I would assume that sales tax revenue is down due to the economy in general and the ever increasing internet markets. This is a challenge that the State needs to address, but not by restricting its citizens from internet shopping.


The bill should move forward. It is a good bill for Maryland wineries; it is a good bill for Maryland consumers. It is a good bill for Maryland.

Wineries with Permits

Wineries Able to Ship to MD

Here is a link to the Comptroller's website. Search for "DW-Direct Wine Shippers Permit" under permit type.

Search for wineries

 

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