The 21st Amendment to the Constitution is often celebrated for repealing Prohibition. And Prohibition sucked, no doubt. But it’s also the case that the 21st Amendment did almost nothing to encourage states to repeal many laws that were relics of Prohibition, and it has not stopped states from passing new laws that call to mind Carrie Nation and her barroom-smashing hatchet.
How dumb are many of the alcohol laws around the country? So dumb that it’s become a virtual parlor game to identify and mock many of the more absurd ones, which, for good measure, often involve animals.
Colorado prohibits riding a horse while drunk. Fairbanks, Alaska once passed a law barring moose from city sidewalks to prevent one moose in particular from taking up its usual spot in a city bar. A 1947 lawyers’ report indicated that Chicago barred giving whiskey to a dog.
While many of these laws are undoubtedly stupid, their quaintness and distance from the reality of everyday drinkers—and by that I mean the majority of us who haven’t attempted to share a Moosehead with a moose lately—makes them a little more than charming conversation fodder for a kegger or a cocktail party.
Still, there are plenty of abominable state booze laws on the books that actually do impact people around the country. And these lousy laws make life difficult for drinkers of all types—from Bud Light loyalists to drinkers of artisanal cocktails to collectors of fine wines.
Perhaps the best-known and most widespread of these laws are evidenced in America’s more than 200 dry counties—areas in which alcohol sales are banned or, in the case of so-called “moist” counties, are severely curtailed.
But many lesser-known laws are just as bad. In North Carolina, bars are illegal. Yes, you read right. “North Carolina doesn’t allow bars,” Mark Combs, general manager of Asheville’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board, told Mountain Express. If you want to get your drink on in North Carolina, for the most part that means you must do so at a restaurant or a private club.
That had been the case in Utah, too, until that state repealed its bar ban in 2009. Raise your glass? Not so fast. While bars are now legal, just try enjoying a craft cocktail in a restaurant, where it’s illegal for bartenders to mix or pour drinks in view of customers.
Utah’s bizarre “Zion Curtain” actually forces many restaurants to erect physical barriers between customers and bartenders. The reasoning? Elected officials in Utah fear that “letting the public see drinks being prepared would lead to more alcohol sales and more alcohol consumption.”
ILLEGAL IN UTAH
It is nice to witness the artistry behind making a drink—though some bartenders gyrate their hips while shaking a drink a little more than I’d prefer. But I’m sure watching a drink being made doesn’t force me to drink more than I otherwise would.
Nor do happy hours. But that hasn’t stopped Massachusetts from banning all happy hour drink specials in the state for decades.
Still, North Carolina, Utah and Massachusetts somehow don’t take the cake when it comes to idiotic state alcohol laws. That privilege belongs to Pennsylvania, a state whose alcohol laws are so bad that they have their own Wikipedia page.
Where to begin? Pennsylvania long forced consumers to buy a case of beer, even if they just wanted a six-pack. “Only recently has the state permitted beer sales in some grocery stores and convenience stores, permitting those retailers to sell six-packs and 12-packs,” noted a recent Pottstown, Penn., newspaper editorial. Pennsylvania is also the only state besides Utah that requires everyone to buy all wines and liquor “from state stores or in-state wineries.”
There are other bizarre restrictions in the Keystone State. If you’re driving from New York to Delaware, for example, and you’re bringing a bottle of beer, wine or liquor to your Delaware friend, you’d best not pass through Pennsylvania. That’s because, according to the state, you’d need to buy an alcohol dealer’s license if you end up stopping off in the state for a cheesesteak or whatnot.
It’s rules like these that caused the Pottstown Mercury to label the state’s alcohol laws “arcane and nonsensical.”
Another thing that distinguishes Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws from those in other states is the zeal with which they are enforced. No one, however good-intentioned, is immune.
In 2014 Pennsylvania liquor authorities seized thousands of bottles of valuable wine from a married couple in the state. Pennsylvania authorities went undercover in an attempt to buy wine from Arthur Goldman, an attorney, and his wife, Melissa. The state claimed the Goldmans were not collectors but were instead acting as wine dealers.
The state seized their entire wine collection—roughly 2,400 bottles—with an eye to destroying all of it. I compared the state’s actions at the time to what one might expect of Saudi Arabia.
After many months of haggling, the couple and the state settled the case this month. Under the settlement, the Goldmans will get back less than half their wine—just over 1,000 bottles. Unfortunately, the state’s haphazard storage of the wine, worth more than $160,000, likely means it may no longer be drinkable.
Also, the state still wants to destroy the rest of the wine. Oddly, though—or not, because it’s Pennsylvania—another state law allows seized wine to be donated to local hospitals. Sure enough, one hospital has already filed paperwork to take the wine off the state’s hands.
But it’s not just large-scale collectors like the Goldmans who are at risk in Pennsylvania. While their case was under review, another man in the state was busted for trying to sell exactly one bottle of coveted Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year without a license.
From booze rules pertaining to moose and dogs, lots of dumb alcohol laws on the books don’t impact you one bit. But many do—whether you prefer beer, wine, liquor or all of the above. It’s decades past time that most of these laws were poured down the drain for good.
Baylen J. Linnekin is the executive director of Keep Food Legal Foundation and an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches Food Law & Policy.