Health Care

Liberalized alcohol measures on Colo., Mass. ballots

Photo credit: Kimery Davis via Creative Commons

Voters in Colorado and Massachusetts will weigh in this November on ballot measures that would loosen restrictions on state liquor sales, part of a growing national push toward modernized liquor laws that has accelerated since the onset of the COVID pandemic. 

Colorado has three measures on the ballot that would allow grocery stores to sell wine, remove a limit on liquor stores operated by one entity, and permit third-party delivery companies deliver alcohol. 

The Massachusetts measure would increase the number of chain stores allowed to have beer and wine licenses. 

Other states may soon follow suit. In Oklahoma, Walmart is lobbying for liquor sales in grocery stores after the state voted to allow full-strength beer and wine in 2016. In Mississippi, a state coalition representing large grocery chains is seeking a ballot measure that would allow wine sales in grocery stores. 

Lawmakers and industry advocates in Connecticut are pushing to pass bills that would allow wine sales in food stores and beer in big box stores after smaller changes cleared the legislature over the last year.

Those changes are driven partly by deep-pocketed national retailers, who hope to continue the skyrocketing alcohol sales they saw during the pandemic by satiating consumer demand for one-stop shopping, curbside pickup and delivery services. 

“COVID really shifted a lot of things about what we demand as consumers in terms of convenience,” said Michelle Lyng, a spokesperson for Wine in Grocery Stores, a group backing the Colorado ballot measures to sell wine in grocery stores and allow third-party delivery. “People just want to puck up a bottle of wine at the grocery store with their spaghetti.”

They also reflect a growing market for products like ready-mixed cocktails. Those beverages often have the same amount of alcohol as malt-based drinks, but the spirits are taxed differently and often are not allowed on shelves next to beer and wine.

“We believe that all beverages with alcohol should be treated equally: alcohol is alcohol,” said Chris Swonger, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national advocacy group that supports moves to allow liquor sales in grocery stores that sell beer and wine and laws allowing alcohol retailers to use third-party delivery services. 

According to the group, 11 states and Washington, DC, have passed such laws since 2021.

Opponents, including groups representing small businesses and the hospitality industry, agree that the pandemic prompted a much-needed review of liquor laws that are often confusing and out of date. Colorado is one of dozens of states where an alcohol-related measure hasn’t made it on the ballot since the Prohibition era, and it was one of only a handful that didn’t allow full-strength beer sales in grocery stores until 2016. 

But they say the measures gaining the most traction are driven by large corporate interests at the expense of local business owners and artisans. 

“This is all basically a corporate greed cash grab,” said Chris Fine, the executive director of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which represents independent liquor stores throughout the state. “It’s these large tech companies … the Instacarts, Door Dashes, the Uber Eats — these third-party delivery folks who have come in and want to deliver you a car battery, some broccoli and three bottles of wine.” 

Fine said the national retailers backing the Colorado measures undercut the prices of locally owned competitors. The major retailers are more likely to stock mass-market brands over locally produced products, like craft beers and wines made at small vineyards. 

“All these things seem to help the big stores under the pretense of really representing liberalization,” said Jackson Cannon, the operator of the landmark Eastern Standard eatery, near Boston’s Fenway Park, that shuttered during the pandemic.

Massachusetts, like many Northeastern states, has been reluctant to relax regulations on the sale and consumption of alcohol. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) indicated he plans to veto a measure to allow municipalities to decide for themselves whether bars and restaurants can offer happy hour discounts on beverage prices. 

Cannon’s group #cocktailsforcommonwealth advocated for liberalizing to-go cocktails during the pandemic, over the objections of the state’s package store industry, a deep-pocketed and influential lobby that wanted to maintain its market dominance. Baker signed an order allowing takeout beverages.

Cannon has pushed the state to join the 18 who have made the pandemic-era move permanent after Baker’s executive order expires in April of 2023, but he said the state has been slow to respond to the needs of the hospitality industry and small retailers. 

“It’s what the chain stores want only,” he said.

The ballot measures in both Colorado and Massachusetts have attracted millions of dollars in outside spending, most of it from a handful of groups representing national retailers. 

In Colorado, Wine in Grocery Stores has raised over $11 million in support of initiatives 121 and 122, which would allow the sale of wine in grocery and convenience stores that are licensed to sell beer and third-party delivery of alcoholic beverages. Much of the money comes from Door Dash, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target and Krogers. 

Most of that has already gone into television advertising, making the group the biggest political spender on television in a state that is hosting a slew of competitive races in November. The ad spending outstrips that from candidates running in the state’s U.S. Senate race, its gubernatorial contest, and a handful of House races that are among the most closely watched in the country and their Super PAC allies, according to Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst at Inside Elections. 

Lyng, of Wine in Grocery stores, said her group represents an array of retailers — including hundreds of restaurants and small business owners — who stand to benefit from the two measures the group is supporting. “We think there is room for everyone to thrive,” she said

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, D, last year signed a law extending a pandemic-era order allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol for take-out and delivery until 2026. Lyng said fewer than 100 restaurants have actually taken advantage because they don’t have the staff or the equipment to make the deliveries themselves. For the same reason, only about 100 of the state’s 1600 liquor stores allowed to take orders for home delivery, she said. Third-party delivery would allow them to tap into that market. 

She said that opponents’ to the 2016 measure allowing full-strength beer sales in grocery stores argued at the time that the measure would force 700 of the state’s 1,600 liquor stores to close. That didn’t happen, she said, rather 10 more liquor stores have opened. “The reason is because liquor stores offer more selection, experts on site, wine tastings. A grocery store isn’t going to do that.”

Coloradans for Consumer Choice and Retail Fairness, the group supporting initiative 96 – which would allow an equal number of licenses for drugstores, grocery stores and liquor stores – has raised almost $7 million. Its major donors include U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) and his brother Robert, the owners of Total Wine & More, and Colorado Fine Wine & Sprits, LLC, which shares a Maryland address with the Home Wine corporate headquarters. 

Representatives of Coloradans for Consumer Choice did not return requests for comment. 

By comparison, Keeping Colorado Local, the only group opposing all three measures, had raised $526,000 and spent $130,000 as of Sept. 28. 

The Massachusetts ballot measure hasn’t attracted as much spending as those in Colorado. A group called 21st Century Alcohol Retail Reform Committee has raised $792,000, mostly from beverage retailers in the state. A committee called Food Stores for Consumer Choice had registered in opposition but only reported $12.50 in contributions. 

The Massachusetts measure likely would not have as much of an impact on the state’s tightly controlled liquor license regime. It would give chain stores the opportunity to sell beer and wine in more locations while limiting their ability to amass liquor licenses, but it would also maintain cities’ and towns’ authority to limit licenses in their jurisdictions, which could complicate efforts by chain stores to expand beer and wine sales, according to a report from the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tisch College.

The measure represented a compromise with chain stores, which had pushed for a more aggressive ballot measure and is unlikely to put the issue to rest, the report said. 

“Whatever voters decide on Question 3,” the report concluded, “the broader fight over alcohol sales in Massachusetts is likely to continue, with more expansive ballot questions in the years ahead.”