Four years after Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, they’ll be given the choice to allow full-strength beer sales in grocery stores. Interest groups are building support for a ballot measure which would allow voters to decide whether to allow full-strength beer and wine in grocery stores in 2016. Similar legislation has failed in Colorado’s state legislature in the past, partially because of liquor store and brewer influence.
Current laws only allow Colorado grocery stores and gas stations to sell beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol by volume. In addition, only one store in a chain may sell liquor in the state. This means chains like Safeway, Target and Trader Joe’s can only sell liquor at one location in Colorado, and this must go through a separate check out from the other products. Some chains – such as Sam’s, Lucky’s and Whole Foods – bypass this regulation by creating a different chain whose locations are placed adjacent to each location of the main store.
Historically these laws were meant to moderate alcohol consumption. Until 2008, liquor stores were not allowed to operate on Sundays, so grocery stores were the only places people could buy alcohol on those days. After that changed, grocery store liquor sales dropped by two thirds. Before that, when 18 year olds could purchase alcohol, it was only at grocery stores, where lower strength alcohol was sold. Since the 1970s, though, people under 21 have not been allowed to purchase any alcohol.
Today, support for the laws revolves mostly around the protection of local businesses. Some people do argue that the provision maintains a low-ABV market which helps moderate consumption, but most worry about local liquor stores and breweries. Because it’s convenient to be able to purchase beer while buying other groceries or gas, consumers may be drawn away from these local stores and breweries, which would jeopardize those businesses’ futures.
In fact, Summit Economics LLC estimates that nearly half of Colorado’s liquor stores will close within three years of this law passing.
In addition, grocery stores will likely stock a smaller selection of craft beers than local stores do, which would indirectly harm smaller breweries. Even the craft beer scene might become more homogeneous as these smaller breweries are overlooked by the places which sell the most alcohol. Brewers can market directly to local liquor stores and get their product on the shelves quickly, and this doesn’t run as smoothly with grocery store chains.
People who wish to undo these laws point to their prohibitionist past and argue that the change will give Colorado consumers more options in shopping for alcohol. They say new variety would also push liquor stores to stock better beers in order to compete with grocery stores and drive down prices. A 2009 white paper by Henry Sobanet argued that some states – like California, Washington and Oregon -which allow grocery store alcohol sales actually have a higher number of liquor stores per capita.
Both sides agree that Colorado’s current laws have helped its craft industry develop into the force it is today. The question is what effect the change will have, whether the government should be regulating this in the first place, and whether it’s a net benefit or net loss to Colorado’s consumers and industry.