Reconsidering the ABC

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By Al Markowitz

Like many of you, I have been increasingly appalled by the abuses of our state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, especially their attempts at law enforcement at UVA. Last year armed under cover ABC agents attacked Elizabeth Daly, a twenty year old student after she and two classmates bought sparkling water, cookie dough and other supplies for a sorority fundraiser at a supermarket. ABC agents mistook the sparkling water for beer. Agents drew guns, swarmed Daly’s car, and arrested her.

Just recently Martese Johnson, an honor student at UVA, was brutally beaten after being turned away from a bar across from the university. As reported in the Washington Post, White ABC officers arrested the black student, Martese Johnson, 20, after he was denied entry to the Trinity Irish Pub near the end of St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Johnson suffered head injuries that left bloody streaks down his face, images that spread quickly on social media, inspiring outrage around the country.“I’m shocked that my face was slammed into the brick pavement just across the street from where I attend school,” Johnson said through his attorney at a news conference. Standing next to his attorney, cuts requiring stitches visible on the student’s head Johnson said, “As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my mind: How could this happen?”

Student cell phone videos from the scene show Johnson lying on the ground with three officers on top of him. The Post article also states that Johnson’s attorney, Daniel P. Watkins, said the student never offered fake identification to enter the pub. Instead, the student gave a valid Illinois state ID. When an employee at the bar asked Johnson for his zip code, Johnson gave the Zip code for his mother’s current address, which differed from the zip code on the identification card, which was issued four years ago.

Another example of overzealous enforcement was a recent raid on a home in Portsmouth where the accused had the criminal audacity to, according to “confidential informants,” sell bottles of beer and a glass of gin, as well as a fish dinner for $7.00. Some bottles of gin, vodka and Manischewitz wine were seized along with a a total of $56.13 in cash. I guess in an impoverished city, hit even harder by the high tolls imposed from the selling off of the tunnels, the ABC feels it is keeping the public safe from the dangers of such dangerous criminal activity.

Though Governor McAuliffe has now required that special agents be retrained in the use of force, it’s not just the overzealous abuse of police powers granted to the ABC that are the problem with this state agency. Unlike states where you can buy your liquor in the grocery store or states with private liquor stores, we have state run stores where what is available on the shelves is strictly controlled and decided in Richmond by the ABC. They decide what will be on its store shelves based strictly on what will sell the most. As W. Curtis Coleburn, chief operating officer of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has said, “We never list anything based on its taste.” What makes the list is decided by two appointees and is updated twice a year.

Discerning drinkers can request items not presently on the shelves. The ABC board in Richmond may or may not decide to add your request to the list of what stores can carry. This short-sighted delusion of control not only limits variety but costs the state money. In the modern world, if you want something not on local shelves like genepi liquor, absinthe, arak, Czech becherovka, imported slivovitz, an Italian amari or other culinary liquors and you are not so patient or optimistic as to place that request to the Richmond deciders and wait a long time for the remote possibility of their approval, you can simply order them online. In that case, you will get the item and the state will have missed the revenue gained from sales and from taxes.

You can also drive up to Maryland or D.C. where there are private liquor stores, but don’t overdo your buying. The Virginia Administrative Code prohibits importing more than one gallon of alcoholic beverages from outside the state or from military bases. ABC agents have been known to stake out DC liquor stores tailing cars with Virginia plates back across the Potomac.

Another issue that plagues our state is the micromanagement of restaurants by the ABC. I don’t include bars because we don’t allow them in our state. Eating establishment must demonstrate that 45 percent of their gross receipts are for food and nonalcoholic beverages. Restaurants are assigned specific ABC stores that they are required to buy from, which are not always convenient. They pay the same retail prices you do. The bottles they buy have stickers that show the store from which they were purchased and ABC agents regularly visit restaurants to monitor this and other rules.

Up until very recently, drinking establishments could not advertise or even post within view of the street any “happy hour” schedule or time. They cannot serve anyone who might already be intoxicated and are responsible for any drunkenness or lewd behavior anywhere in or around their establishments.

In short, the ABC, founded shortly after the end of Prohibition, is an outdated, overbearing institution that does our state more harm than good in its present form. Governor McDonnell’s efforts to close and privatize our state-run stores, ending the state monopoly on liquor sales, was opposed by many in Richmond across party lines and ultimately failed. While privatizing liquor sales would be a good option, his plan was to sell off public property (as with the tunnels) to the well-connected by auctioning off 1000 retail licenses rather than just letting retail food and wine shops sell liquor.

Many feared a loss of jobs that paid better than general retail and that come with state benefits. A better option might be to keep the state ABC stores but to let them be self managed, able to order and buy from any distributor, and to compete with each other. The state would still get the money and the taxes.

Our state has a long and contentious history where alcohol is concerned. Virginia went dry in 1916, three years before national prohibition was instituted. Alcohol sales and consumption were banned by referendum after long campaigns by prohibitionist groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. Cities notably reluctant in enforcing prohibition were Alexandria, Richmond and Norfolk. Before prohibition, Virginia had many beer breweries and several distilleries as well a long-established moonshining tradition in the mountainous western part of the state. As with the continuing prohibition against cannabis, prohibition pushed alcoholic beverages underground, decreasing safety and quality and increasing criminal activity and its consequences. It was also difficult to enforce in resistant urban and isolated rural areas where one could still find a drink with little difficulty.

Prohibition ended in 1933. It is time for the lingering vestiges of it to fully end in our state. We are again seeing the growth of beer breweries and small distilleries. Legal obstacles, distribution regulations, and costs make our state a more difficult one for small producers to be profitable.

It seems to me that the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control should be reduced to a small office overseeing the taxation and revenue of alcohol sales either by state stores, private retail outlets, or both. I can see where they could work with ATF and local law enforcement to arrest major bootleggers, but they do not need their own armed police. They shouldn’t be policing college campuses or poor neighborhoods. They shouldn’t be dictating what is available for purchase and they shouldn’t be micromanaging and harassing restaurateurs. This is not economically productive nor does it make our state safer or more attractive. It’s time to re-examine and reduce the scope, mission and power of this agency.

 

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