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May 21, 2013

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Indiana liquor laws are confusing to all

— I’m not much of a drinker, so I haven’t spent much time thinking about how Indiana’s alcohol laws personally impact me, but that changed last fall when my daughter got married.

Two days before the wedding, my daughter’s soon-to-be in-laws drove to a Sam’s Club to buy the beer for the wedding reception. Knowing we anticipated a large crowd, they loaded up an oversized shopping cart with cases of beer and headed for the checkout lane, only to be stopped by a clerk.

Being Illinois residents, here’s what they didn’t know: In Indiana, you can only buy 864 ounces of beer, equal to three cases, in a single transaction.

Pleasant but puzzled, they bought their allotted three cases and returned the next day, with a couple more family members, to buy the rest. Here’s what they also didn’t know (and weren’t told by the clerk): Frequent big-quantity beer buyers in Indiana know you can skirt the law by getting back into another line after you’ve finished your first transaction and buy three more cases of beer.

There was no real harm done, other than the bite it took out of some precious wedding-prep time. But I found myself struggling to figure how to explain the Hoosier law to the in-laws in Illinois.

State Rep. Bill Davis, whose gate-keeping power over alcohol-related legislation derives from his role as chairman of the House Committee on Public Policy, would say the law’s intention is good: It makes it tougher to buy a product, though while legal, is more widely abused than any illegal drug and is the cause, over the last five years, of the deaths of more 1,000 people killed in drunken-driving accidents in Indiana.  

Since the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which brought an end to national Prohibition, states have had the authority to regulate how alcohol is sold and consumed.

But the regulation doesn’t always make sense.

That’s the basic argument put forth in a lawsuit filed last week against the state by the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. The association is challenging an Indiana alcohol law that allows bars, restaurants and package liquor stores to sell cold beer but makes convenience stores, gas stations and pharmacies sell their beer warm.

Scot Imus, the association’s executive director, calls the law outdated and irrational.

Opponents of expanding cold beer sales make an argument worth considering: People buy their beer cold because they want to drink it soon after they buy it. They fear that making it even easier to buy cold beer than it is now could lead to an increase in drunken driving.

Imus’ response, in part: “They allow us to sell chilled wine products, most of which contain higher alcohol content than beer. What is it about cold beer that merits this special discriminatory treatment, other than its market popularity?”

The answer is the protection of the package liquor stores in Indiana, which, by state law, must be owned and operated by people who live in Indiana. Their advocates argue package liquor stores face more regulations and can sell fewer non-alcoholic products than groceries, pharmacies and convenience stores. A little protection for them evens the playing field, they argue.

For the past five years, that debate has played out in the Indiana General Assembly and gotten nowhere. Now it’s up to the courts to decide.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. Contact her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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