Every state’s alcohol laws are arcane little systems of dysfunction and no two are exactly alike. I grew up with the laws in Pennsylvania, which have to be near the top, at least in terms of how seemingly bizarre and arbitrary they are. Until very recently, you couldn’t get a drink on Sundays, due to archaic “blue laws.” It’s also a case state, meaning you can only buy beer by the case, except in bars that can sell you a six-pack often at wildly inflated prices.
Pennsylvania is also know for it’s Amish, or Pennsylvania Dutch, population, and I grew up right near these communities. In fact, my ancestors who emigrated to the state in the early 1700s were Anabaptists from Bern, Switzerland. They settled in Bernville and for generations were Mennonite farmers. There’s also a cheesy theme park in the area, near Lancaster, called Dutch Wonderland. All of this has little to do with the story, except to explain why I’ve called the entire state “Dutch Wonderland” ever since I moved away from it over twenty years ago.
One of the odder features of the state, which ended when they introduced photo driver’s licenses, were PLCB cards. These were essentially “drinking cards” which served no other purpose than to legally allow you to enter a bar or other place where alcohol was served. A few weeks before turning twenty-one, you filled out a form and dropped it off at your local “State Store,” along with a pair of headshots from one of those old photo booths that dispensed a sheet of four photos for half a buck. Then on or after your birthday, you picked up your card back at the shop. After your driver’s license also included a photo, there was no need to keep making the drinking cards and they were discontinued. None of this has anything to do with the story, either, I just find it fascinating the lengths states will go to keep minors from obtaining alcohol. It was a pretty elaborate and complicated system. And at the time I was quite indignant because I was also in the armed forces and could never understand the logic that allowed me to die for my country but denied me the right to drink a beer. Plus it’s the weekend and my mind is pretty tangential, jumping from thought to thought without much regard to where it’s leading me.
Alright, back to the main story, and it’s a somewhat familiar one. Every few years it seems Pennsylvania flirts with the idea of changing their liquor laws in some fashion, but it never seems to go anywhere. Now it appears that finally the times, they are a-changing. On February 1, a convenience store in Altoona sold the first beer (sadly a 12-pack of Coors Light) in that type of store. There are still some pretty arcane rules at work such as having to keep the beer separate from other sales and using different cash registers — meaning you have to ring up your purchases twice at the same location at two different cash registers. But now that the Sheetz chain has opened the door, others are considering following suit, such as Wegmans and Weis.
Naturally, the current beer distributor system, through their lobbyist organization, the Malt Beverages Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, is opposing this change because it threatens their monopoly. I can’t say I blame them, but for most people the present system is a pain in the neck and makes it difficult for the brewers themselves, too. The writing may finally be on the wall on this one. I know if I still lived in Dutch Wonderland I’d be arguing hard for this change, especially having tasted the world outside Pennsylvania where alcohol is more freely available. In virtually every neighboring state, beer can be purchased in grocery and convenience stores. Most of the arguments against this change are the same old nonsense about protecting children.
As the Pocono Record editorializes:
Nonsense. Other states where private enterprise extends to alcohol sales have no higher rates of alcoholism, nor has there been a problem with cashiers’ age. These problems are surmountable if Pennsylvania, the do-anything-you-want state in so many other ways, could once get past the idea that government alone should decide when and where citizens can buy beer, wine and liquor.
The real motivation for the perpetuation of the PLCB is political power over an entrenched bureaucracy, not protection of citizens. Pennsylvania should leave the vending of alcoholic beverages to bar and restaurant owners, wine sellers and grocers and other merchants. These capitalists can decide, based on sensible rules and consumer demand, their hours and their prices. Competition would produce a much more consumer-friendly system than what we have now.
But now it’s up to the state’s Commonwealth Court, who has before it a case filed by the Malt Beverages Distributors Association of Pennsylvania seeking to keep the status quo intact for 1,100 beer distributors and 300 wholesalers. So far, experts seem to be leaning toward the court ruling against the distributors. They point to the fact that last year the court would not issue an injunction stopping Sheetz with going ahead with their plan. While certainly not dispositive, it does seem to be a positive sign. It will likely be a few months before the court is expected to decide the case. Until then, Dutch Wonderland will join the modern world, whether briefly or permanently, by allowing beer to be sold in the wider world.