No legal fix needed for state liquor system

Here’s a problem that could drive business-oriented state lawmakers to drink.

Some businesses in the state are lobbying hard for the right to expand their ability to sell liquor, arguing it will boost convenience and lower prices for consumers. But, if the Legislature approves the proposed changes, it is likely that a number of independent liquor stores will be forced to close their doors.

How lawmakers come down on this will say much about their support for chains versus small, locally owned businesses.

Our support is with the independent liquor stores on these issues, but there are reasonable arguments to be made by both sides.

Colorado’s liquor laws long ago developed so that full-strength beer, wine and distilled spirits can be sold only by independent liquor stores that don’t sell other retail items such as food. Grocery stores and convenience stores have been allowed to sell beer that is 3.2 percent alcohol, but nothing more.

Other states allow much more wide-open sales, in which grocery stores, hardware stores, big-box department stores — virtually any retailer — can obtain a license to sell all types of liquor. The result is one-stop shopping for consumers, and prices are often lower.

Now, two bills in the Colorado Legislature propose to change our state system. One would allow convenience stores to sell full-strength beer, but not wine or hard liquor. The other would allow grocery stores to purchase the liquor licenses of liquor stores in the same vicinity, and then sell liquor products, so long as the grocery store is not within 1,000 feet of an existing liquor store.

The convenience-store bill is not as problematic as the grocery-store legislation. Allowing convencience stores to sell full-strength beer will undoubtedly have an impact on liquor stores, but not to the same extent that selling wine and hard liquor in grocery chains will. Moreover, many of the convenience stores are locally owned.

But opening liquor sales up to grocery stores, even if on a limited basis initially, is a step in the direction of ending most independent liquor stores.

If that were the liquor sales model Colorado had used from the beginning, it would be one thing. But the state developed under the current plan, which encouraged family businesses to grow and prosper under these rules. Pulling the rug out from under them now would be wrong.

And threatening liquor stores with a ballot measure to open up liquor sales to far more retailers if they don’t support these bills is a bit disingenuous. It’s far from certain the measure would pass.

Besides, there’s little evidence that people in Colorado have a difficult time obtaining the types or quantities of liquor they want under the current system.


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