Drinking Non-Alcoholic Beer Can Be A Crime?

There was a news item a few days ago that recently a fifth grade teacher in Michigan offered students non-alcoholic beer — O’Douls — as part of “a lesson on colonial times,” with the intention to “represent ale common in the 1700s and consumed because of the scarcity of clean water.” Sounds harmless enough. No students were forced to try it, but they had the opportunity to sample it if they wished to. What could go wrong?

What the teacher didn’t know is that apparently it’s actually illegal to give a minor in Michigan a non-alcoholic beer. The law was passed back in the 1950s, when people were even nuttier about alcohol than they are today, if that’s possible, but Michigan did pass a law making it illegal for minors to drink non-alcoholic beer. Here’s the entirety of the law:

Act 328 of 1931

750.28 Cereal beverage with alcoholic content; furnishing to minors, penalty.

Sec. 28.

Any person who shall sell, give or furnish to a minor, except upon authority of and pursuant to a prescription of a duly licensed physician, any cereal beverage of any alcoholic content under the name of “near beer”, or “brew”, or “bru”, or any other name which is capable of conveying the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcoholic content, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

History: Add. 1957, Act 283, Eff. Sept. 27, 1957

How Kafkaesque. The state defines what non-alcoholic means then still makes it illegal even if it’s within their own definition, and if it’s 0.5% or below, Michigan state’s Liquor Control Commission doesn’t even regulate it. So alcohol in cough syrup. No problem. Non-alcoholic wine? Go for it. A cereal beverage? Heavens no. That’s going too far.

And perhaps more curious, the law can be read to suggest that what’s at issue is giving the “impression” that the drink has alcohol in it, not that it really does. Because it seems like you could create a non-alcoholic beer within the legal definition but call it something random, like “Barley Pop” or “Brown Cow” and not be in violation of this law if you gave some to your children. The name seems more important than the alcoholic content. Why would that be the case?

When I was a kid, the only reason near beer existed was for kids. No sane adult would drink it. My first taste of beer was from a can of near beer that my parents bought for me when I expressed interest in trying beer, which was the case for some of my friends, too. It was horrible. I think that may have been the point, I don’t know.

The Flint Journal reports that the school sent letters home to parents after they discovered the “incident” but according to school district Superintendent Ed Koledo. “Nobody complained to the teacher, principal or me,” or to the police, and no disciplinary measures were taken against the teacher. Despite nobody being upset in the least, you’d think a nuclear blast had gone off, the way they talk about it.

“We talked to the teacher and said this was an inappropriate choice,” Koledo said. “There were a lot better choices to represent a colonial-era drink than what was chosen here.”

Really, what would have been a better choice to represent what the vast majority of people drank during the colonial era? And he says “a lot of better choices.” A lot? Really? I can’t wait to see the list.

“I know there was no intent to expose anyone to harm, just poor thought in this situation.”

Seriously, “poor thought?” It’s non-alcoholic beer for chrissakes, and a few kids had a sip of it in a controlled environment, not a back alley clutching a paper bag. And it was a sip. What is a sip? A teaspoon? Half an ounce? Oh, the horror.

Linden schools are drug and alcohol-free zones and Koledo said he did not know if O’Doul’s beer would constitute a violation.

Again, are we really going to split hairs because it has 0.5% alcohol (or less) in it? So is cough medicine allowed on campus? I’m pretty sure caffeine can be considered a drug, so I hope they’re going to remove the coffee maker from the teacher’s lounge. Up until the 1970s, schools in Belgium served students table beer every day.

So how exactly did this end up being a news story?


Beer In Grocery Stores: Oh, The Horror!

Here in sunny California, we can stroll down to the local grocery store, or convenience store, and buy a six-pack of beer. It’s not a big deal. It’s been that way since I moved here in 1985, and probably was that way long before I arrived. I pretty much take it for granted, but there are still states where adults still can’t buy a beer without going to a special store, sometimes run by the state itself, to protect its tax revenue, but more importantly to tightly control the distribution of demon alcohol. My home state of Pennsylvania was (and is) one such state. All of the states’ alcohol laws were written in the wake of prohibition’s end, and were designed with that failed legacy in mind. Most of these laws today are antiquated and out-of-date in the face of modern life.

But changing alcohol laws are harder than many other laws, because there’s a special layer of angst that lawmakers must face. Alcohol is still treated as a toxic substance, one that poses a danger, despite it having been around since the dawn of civilization and having been legal for adults for literally the entirety of human history, with the notable exception of thirteen years in the mid-20th century. But prohibitionist strategy since essentially the moment the 21st Amendment was ratified has remained unchanged: to make it as difficult as possible for adults to obtain legal alcohol. And so for the past 80+ years they’ve been tireless in their efforts to make us work for our beer. So now the state of Kansas is seeking to modernize the state and allow beer, wine and spirits to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. The modest bill takes into account liquor stores’ current monopolies and gives “them 10 years to adapt to increased competition in the marketplace. Beer sales would not be legal until 2017, wine in 2020, and spirits in 2024.” But that would mean there would be more places where adults could legally buy something that they’re legally entitled to purchase, and we certainly don’t want to encourage that. Or rather the prohibitionists don’t want people to be able to. Alcohol Justice tweeted out their displeasure with Kansas, chastising lawmakers there with a simple admonishment: “Bad move.”

I’m sure they have an excellent reason why it’s a “bad move” for adults to have more freedom and convenience in purchasing their alcohol, something they’re already allowed to do, but so far A.J. is mum on the whys are wherefores. Although you can be sure it has something to do with protecting children or how much more the state will be harmed if people can increasingly be able to engage in the legally permissible act of enjoying a beer. They’ve never been too strong on logic or rational thought, so maybe it’s best they stick to the sublimely absurd. Because as far as I can tell, Alcohol Justice telling the legislature of the state of Kansas “bad move” is the schoolyard bully equivalent of “because we said so” or “because we don’t like it.”


The Taboo Of Public Drinking

Today’s infographic comes from a story in the HuffPo entitled The Secret History Of The War On Public Drinking, which includes some surprising details. For example, while I think most people believe that drinking in public has been illegal almost forever, ordinances banning public drinking didn’t start being enacted until around 1975. Only about 2% of Americans live in a place which allows public drinking, which is odd when you consider it’s perfectly legal unless a state, town or municipality decides to actively ban it. More backroom mischief by the prohibitionists is more like it. The map below shows where you can and can’t have a beer in your hand in a public place.

Click here to see the map full size.

Prohibition Did What?!

Today’s infographic, since today is the day in 1933 when the 21st Amendment passed, repealing Prohibition, is one I’ve posted before, entitled Prohibition Did What?! It goes in to many of the effects that Prohibition had on the country, none of them particularly positive.

Click here to see the infographic full size.

Handy Drinking Laws

Today’s infographic is an overview of drinking laws in the United States created by Medical Insurance.org, although the website no longer seems to work. To be fair, it appears to be from around 2007, and shows an interesting quartet of U.S. maps illustrating different aspects of alcohol laws followed by a list of control state info and sale hours by state.

Click here to see the infographic full size.

Making Up Harms

On Tuesday, the UK alcohol industry-funded group Drinkaware, stated that they would initiate a review in support of the government’s much-maligned alcohol strategy and is apparently “interested in the factors that drive ‘binge’ drinking.” In an Morning Advertiser article, Drinkaware director of marketing and communications, Anne Foster, claims that “Binge drinking and its negative consequences blight communities, families, businesses and public services. Each year, £21 billion is spent cleaning up after late-night revellers and those who have drunk to excess.” Of course, she never states where that figure comes from or how it was arrived upon, and much like Alcohol Justice’s funny math when they were trying to persuade the City of San Francisco to raise the city tax on alcohol, it was just a scary, made-up number with no basis in science or fact.

Pete Brown took to Twitter and called them out for that, saying first that “you [Drinkaware] have falsely stated all £21bn is caused by binge drinking when it’s ALL the costs of alcohol. (Or would be if it were true.)” Drinkaware responded by hoping “everyone can agree alcohol harm and binge should be reduced which is what our call for evidence tries to tackle.” Watching from the sidelines, that was a “spit take” for me, because it sidestepped the issue of falsely exaggerating the so-called “harm,” and to my mind even trying to quantify the harm at all is something of a red flag.

James Nicholls, Research Manager of Alcohol Research UK, chimed in on the Twitter conversation, adding; “the [£21bn] estimate is based on all social costs inc treatment, absenteeism etc. so includes dependency, home drinking +.” Which is the same sort of list that’s always trotted out. It’s misleading at best, and in my opinion deceitful at its worst to suggest that alcohol causes what they claim. Society is far too complex to say that “x” and “y” are directly related and that “a” causes “b.” The world’s just not that orderly and its unproductive to even think along those lines. We don’t think that way for anything else, with this notion of “alcohol harm” being pretty much the lone exception. We don’t, for example, talk about the harms caused by people eating red meat, and the additional burdens they place on the healthcare system by giving themselves diseases and conditions because they can’t control their meat intake.

Pete responds, appropriately, with the fact that “overstating problem creates moral panic and media sensationalism that helps no one. That £21bn fig really is risible.” That, I believe, is the major problem with these exercises; they’re dishonest at their core. Whoever is floating a supposed amount of “harm” wants it to be as large as possible so that it gets noticed and makes people think the problem is so big it must be acted on immediately, and without reflection. The same thing happened in San Francisco when a completely biased Nexus Study was conducted by the City to support imposing a separate, and additional, local alcohol tax.

Last year, another UK colleague, Phil Mellows, argued about this problem, as well, in his well-reasoned The science and politics of costing alcohol harm, where he also addressed that fictional £21 billion that Drinkaware used, when it was used by another group to further their agenda. At that time, another group, DrugScope, concluded what I’ve argued for years, that “social cost of drinking totals little better than nonsense.” Give Phil’s the politics of drinking a read. But I particularly love that nonsense quote, which is based on an article by Finnish researcher Klaus Mäkelä, published in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. That article, Cost-of-alcohol studies as a research programme, can be summarized as follows:

This analysis argues that estimates of the cost imposed on society by drinking are often grossly inflated because (among other things) they assume that hazardous drinking must be irrational consumption, that crime benefits no one, that drinking has no social, psychological or indirect business benefits, and that productivity losses are not counter-balanced by benefits elsewhere and by non-alcohol impaired workers taking over the jobs of the impaired. These assumptions are, it is contended, based on value judgements sometimes not made explicit, and lend the results of calculations based on those values a spurious appearance of objectivity and precision.

And then there’s this conclusion. “Even the most sophisticated cost-of-alcohol calculations include entries based on misleading assumptions or logical mistakes.” Amen to that, now if only so many of these groups and mis-guided government agencies would stop making up these numbers and instead debate public policy honestly.

Beer Industry Trademark Concerns

Boston attorney Shannon Sadowski, founder of New Leaf Legal, wrote an engaging piece for the Boston Globe on trademark concerns that craft breweries will be facing as more and more brands emerge in the growing market. These disputes aren’t going to go away, and I’m always amazed by all of the naked ignorance of IP law on display anytime one these disputes rears its ugly head. Before the 24-hour news cycles and the internet, these controversies existed largely in back rooms out of the public eye, where — I believe — they belong. But until I finish building the time machine, “progress” marches on and these disputes are now part of the public brewing world landscape. Any-ha-who, her article, Trouble brewing: fierce competition for beer industry trademarks, is a good overview of the challenges breweries are facing, and even includes a link to Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing’s wonderful response letter to a trademark dispute. Read it, and be prepared for the next trademark dispute, coming any day now to a brewery near you.


Homebrewing Finally Legal In All 50 States

As Mississippi’s ban on homebrewing was lifted today, for the first time since Prohibition made brewing illegal in 1919, homebrewing is finally allowed in all fifty states. My only comment is it’s about damn time. That a supposed clerical error — a typo — made home winemaking legal after prohibition ended while keeping homebrewing illegal is the biggest anti-alcohol bullshit move of all-time, especially when you consider it took a full seventy years to correct that “typo,” at least for all states. The American Homebrewers Association released a statement this morning, as did the Brewers Association:

Unifying the United States homebrew community has long been an aspiration of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), and we are proud to announce this goal has been achieved with the help of countless dedicated homebrewers and AHA members like you. July 1, 2013 marks the day Mississippi lifts its homebrew restriction, unifying homebrewers in all fifty states for the first time since before prohibition.

Beer history in the United States region predates the very existence of the country as we know it. Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere produced a watery maize-beer, a pre-cursor to modern American adjunct beer, and as the earliest explorers settled down in the New World, America’s contemporary brewing culture was born.

“From our nation’s founders to our current President, this country has a long and storied tradition of homebrewing,” said AHA director Gary Glass.

Even after prohibition was eradicated with the implementation of the 21st Amendment in 1933, homebrewers would still be criminals in the eyes of the federal law for over four-and-a-half decades. President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that went into effect on February 1, 1979 federally legalizing homebrewing, but it remained up to each state to determine their individual alcohol policies, including home beer production. Over the course of the next forty-six years, states adopted legislation, permitting the making of beer at home.

It’s terrific news that finally homebrewing is permitted in every state. It’s been a long time coming.


Proving Adulthood

As I inch closer to senior citizenship — gallop really — few things cheese me off more than continually having to prove I’m old enough to buy a drink. It’s been 33 years since I became an adult (36 really, but they changed the definition from 18 to 21 while I was in between the two). Of course, what it means to be an adult is quite the loaded question. The standard responsibilities, obligations and rights include voting, the ability to enter into contracts, marry and several others, including of course, drinking alcohol. The fact that these standards vary from nation to nation, and culture to culture, should convince you that they’re a product of each individual community, and really ought to reflect the values of the populace. And once upon a time, they did, but in my lifetime those values have been hijacked by a minority of fanatics who are committed to forcing their own values on the rest of us.

While the common sense argument that fighting for one’s country should include at least the ability to vote lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, the reverse of that argument was used to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21. People 18 to 20 could be counted on to protect our freedoms — and die for their country — but neo-prohibitionists argued that they weren’t ready to enjoy a beer. A specious argument to be sure, but they managed to tie raising the drinking age to federal highway funds, and no state could afford to remain sensible.

But for anti-alcohol fanatics even that wasn’t enough, it was just a start. And neo-prohibitionists ever since have been working tirelessly to tighten the noose on all manner of restrictions on alcohol. I remember when I was in my early 20s, signs at cash registers warned that if you look 25 or older, be prepared to show your I.D. By the time I was in my 30s, the signs had changed, too, saying roughly the same thing but making 30 the threshold. As I’ve aged, the needle keeps moving. A few years ago, Tennessee passed a law that every person, no matter how old, has to prove they’re at least 21, even if they have one foot in the grave, no exceptions.

People invariably tell me I should be flattered to look so young, and chuckle as they say it, as if I should be amused. Well, I’m not. It has nothing to do with youth. It has to do with control, and having to keep proving I’m an adult is a ridiculous indignity that grows more insulting with each passing year. We live in an increasingly Kafkaesque world where as the older I look, the more I have to prove it. As late as my 40s, I was refused service because I left my wallet at home, despite there being little doubt I was more than twice the age of majority. It’s become the modern equivalent of having to “show us your papers” (say it with a thick German accent), a sad cliche become real. Adulthood has responsibilities and obligations, of course, but it should also have a few benefits, like not having to carry our “papers” with us wherever we go.

But now Somerset, the county in southwest England, has taken this absurdity one step farther. According to a story in the This is Somerset newspaper — a Grandfather, 77, falls foul of shop’s booze rules — an elderly gentlemen was refused his purchase of beer because he was shopping with his teenage grandson. Apparently, the overzealous cashier thought the 77-year old man was buying beer for the teenager, but even after he confirmed they were related, the sale was still refused. He sent his grandson outside, but the cashier still wouldn’t budge. Commenters to the story insist that she was right to refuse the sale because that’s what the law says. And that’s probably correct, but it’s the law that’s wrong. We have to stop trying to make a perfect society through such absurd legislation. When an elderly man can’t shop with his grandchild and buy something he’s legally entitled to purchase because he could potentially turn around and do something illegal with it, that’s going too far. That’s trying to fix a perceived problem by creating a different problem for many more people than were affected by the original problem. But this is the neo-prohibitionist strategy in a nutshell. They want to make it as difficult as possible for as many people as possible. It’s using a bazooka to kill a fly. It’s about punishing everyone who drinks, not about keeping alcohol away from minors.

And so neo-prohibitionists insist that 4/5th of the adult population, or more, has to suffer on the off chance a 16-year old might get his hands on a beer. That’s not what it should mean to be an adult in any society.