ABC...F: What's wrong with state alcohol laws
By Don Harrison
"The ABCs of Virginia Alcohol Law” packs an awful lot of absurdity into its five-minute running time. The award-winning short-form documentary, made by filmmakers Austin Bragg and Caleb Brown, compactly summarizes for the YouTube generation the overflowing problems that bar owners and patrons face if they want to sell or consume alcohol in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
With depressing accuracy, this little film depicts a state stuck in the dark ages when it comes to how its Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulates, or over-regulates, spirits. As documented, many of our liquor laws seem alternately punitive and arbitrary, nonsensical and draconian, subject to selective interpretation, and capable of terminating livelihoods.
Bragg and Brown present example after example: Virginians of legal age can go into a bar and buy a bottle of beer or wine, but they are forbidden to purchase a bottle of liquor (this is called “bottle service” in other, more enlightened, locales); a bar customer can’t buy three drinks at a time– two is the limit– but the amount of alcohol contained in the drinks doesn’t factor in (Um, what is this law protecting us from? Wasteful glass usage?). Also, a person can legally transport a three-gallon jug of whiskey across state lines, but doing the same thing with six half-gallon containers– the same amount of alcohol– is forbidden (if the liquor is legal, why should this matter?).
The film also shows that Virginia’s alcohol laws, many of them crafted during Prohibition, give an inordinate amount of power to state bureaucrats, some of whom have earned a reputation for being petty and using their positions to punish free speech. Two Virginia bar owners make an appearance in “The ABCs of Virginia Alcohol Law." They are filmed in dark shadow with their voices filtered, as if they were mafia witnesses instead of business people pointing out how Virginia’s laws affect their bottom lines.
The paranoia is justified, the barkeeps claim. “If you come after them," says one. "they’ll come after you."
And how does the ABC do this? By selectively enforcing rules that govern how dim your bar’s lights get, or how dark your corner booths are, how loud your music is… even if your “attitude” isn’t just right.
Or maybe they just don’t like your kind. Take Cafines and Farenheit, two Richmond nightclubs shut down 10 years ago in a bust co-led by the ABC. The owners were never successfully prosecuted but the end result was the same: the clubs, which catered to a gay clientele, went out of business fighting the legal battle.
The state’s ABC officers can indeed get out of control. But don’t take my word for it. Take a peek at the ABC’s website and peruse the long list of businesses that have recently lost licenses or faced heavy fines for breaking liquor laws. While there are plenty of legitimately actionable offenses on hand– mostly relating to underage drinking– businesses are also cited for “being a meeting place or rendezvous for drunks and habitual law violators” (should bartenders keep a current copy of a mug-shot magazine on hand for easy reference?), for “advertising happy hour” (yes, that is actually illegal in Virginia), for “allowing loitering by a intoxicated person” (what is this, a bar or something?), or– my favorite– for “having a lack of respect for law and order.”
Thanks to our wise leaders, it’s illegal to play a game of quarters in a Virginia bar but carrying a loaded firearm there is perfectly okay.
Of course, the most egregious ABC law is the one that mandates that food sales account for 45 percent of an establishment’s receipts. A sizable portion of suspended offenders simply can’t maintain that percentage. But ask yourself: Is this law necessary or just arbitrary? Why not 35 percent or 25 percent? Why any percentage at all? Currently, the agency is at the end of a two-year pilot program to re-evaluate this long-standing law, with findings expected at the end of the year.
I wouldn’t expect much by way of reform, though. Not when you have laws on the books that penalize bar owners for the clothes their customers wear. Yes, if too many bar patrons are similarly outfitted, the argument goes, they may be gang members. Of course, they also could be a bowling team or a group of motorcycle enthusiasts. You, Mr. Bar Owner, are expected to know– or your business can be shut down.
Ask most government officials and they’ll paint a picture of total anarchy if laws like this were repealed. But in what other business is a proprietor expected to be a mind reader, gangland task force member, and sartorial critic all at once?
“The problem is that many owners are afraid to go against ABC because if they lose their license, they lose their livelihood,” Tom McGrath of the Virginia Coalition of Motorcyclists writes about this law. “Many owners, in order to avoid any risk, may just say no colors at all.”
In other words, it’s much easier to violate your customers’ rights than it is to challenge the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Virginia is business-friendly? Really?
“George Washington operated his own distillery,” the narrator of the short documentary informs us. “Thomas Jefferson owned two vineyards. Samuel Adams brewed beer. If they were living in Virginia today, these patriots would all be guilty of a felony, punishable by up to six years in state prison.”
When Gov. Bob McDonnell went on a crusade last year to overhaul Virginia’s archaic alcohol laws, he missed a grand opportunity. By concentrating only on privatizing the ABC, and not on addressing long-burning issues of fairness and common sense, he lost out on carving out a real and lasting legacy; he punted on genuinely reforming what is easily Virginia’s most out-of-control– and outdated– public agency.
There is compelling evidence that having states regulate alcohol consumption is the wisest course. But you’d never know it by looking at Virginia’s ABC.
Don Harrison is the arts and culture editor of Style, the Richmond newsweekly that originally published this essay.