Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Indiana's Arcane and Archaic Alcohol Laws

Anybody who has ever purchased beer or wine in an Indiana grocery store should be well aware of some of the dumbest laws in the country. For those unfamiliar with Indiana's arcane and archaic alcohol laws, let me give a quick introduction. Rather than simply explain the laws, I'll use a scenario or two to illustrate.

So, it's late on Saturday afternoon and your wife tells you that some friends are going to come over and you're going to grill some burgers. Sounds great. She tells you to run up to the grocery to buy some burgers and beer. You hop in your car, run up to the corner grocery, and get ready to make your purchases. The burgers are easy. The beer? Well that's another story. Because your friends are coming over soon, it would be great to have some cold beer, wouldn't it? But this is Indiana and you're in a grocery store. Sure you can buy beer and wine and maybe other types of spirits, but guess what? You cannot purchase cold beer. Nope. Not in an Indiana grocery store. For that, you'll have to go to a package liquor store.

You decide that you'll just throw the beer in a cooler when you get home instead of running to a second store (and besides, you know that you'd probably pay more for the beer at a liquor store...). After all, your friends will be over soon. So you get in line to pay for your purchases. A young girl, probably in high school, is ringing up purchases for customers. When your turn comes, she smiles and starts to ring up your items. She runs the burgers and chips and paper plates over the bar code scanner until all that is left is the beer. But instead of taking the beer out of the cart and running it over the scanner, she presses the intercom button and asks for assistance in her aisle. What? She notices your perplexed look and explains that she isn't yet 19 so she isn't allowed to sell you the beer. After waiting a few minutes (much to the annoyance of the customers in line behind you), another, older, cashier comes over, picks up the beer, runs it over the bar code scanner, presses a button on the cash register, and then walks away. The original cashier finishes the transaction and collects your money. The bag boy -- who can't be more than 15 or 16 -- picks up the beer, puts in a grocery bag, and then offers to carry your bag to the car for you.

Of course, had it been Sunday afternoon, the grocery wouldn't have been able to sell you the beer at all...

Did you get all that? Let me summarize. Among Indiana's idiotic alcohol-related laws, is a prohibition on grocery stores selling cold beer (if I recall, package liquor stores are prohibited from selling milk; I'm not sure if the prohibition is only for cold milk or if they can sell condensed milk...) and a cashier has to be at least 19 to lift the alcohol out of your cart and run it over the scanner but can take your money for the alcohol. And there doesn't appear to be any age requirement for a bag boy to carry the alcohol out to a car.

I have not taken the time to go find the actual statutes or rules that are operative here; it didn't really seem worth the effort. After all, the question is really one of policy, not implementation.

I suspect that the "no cold beer" law is some sort of protection for the package liquor stores (who most likely are able to charge more for the cold drinks that they can sell). So, I guess that the pros and cons of that law really come down to purely economic issues. But I would query why the package liquor stores need that type of protection from the state. Either their business model is sound or it is not. After all, isn't that what people have been saying of late about all sorts of businesses and industries...?

But I really don't understand the need to have a 19-year old scan the alcohol. First, why are we treating a 19-year old differently than an 18-year old? They're both adults, yet neither is old enough to drink (whether the drinking age should be lowered to 18 may make an interesting discussion for another day). So why is 19 the "magic" age? Furthermore, why is it a problem for an 18-year old to pick up a case of beer and run it over a bar code scanner but acceptable for that same 18-year old (or an even younger employee) to put that case of beer in a bag and/or carry it to a customer's car? And don't forget that the 18-year old cashier can complete the purchase and accept the customer's money (thus, in effect, "selling" the alcohol to the customer). What is it about the act of scanning the price of the alcohol that is so troublesome?

I've only been able to come up with two explanations and one falls on its face almost immediately. The first explanation is that we don't want "underage" employees to sell alcohol (probably because it will "corrupt" them or lead to some other evil result). But, as I mentioned above, the underage cashier is able to complete the transaction and take the money. All the underage cashier is apparently prohibited from doing is scanning the bar code of the beer. This explanation also fails because the distinction between scanning the bar code, completing the transaction, and carrying the alcohol to a car is a perfect example of a distinction without meaning.

The only other explanation would be that we want older cashiers to handle the transactions so that they can properly check the age of the purchaser and do a better job of enforcing the applicable alcohol laws. Of course, the number of times that I've been carded when buying alcohol over the last, oh, 15 years, I can probably count on one hand. And again, I don't understand the distinction between 18-year olds and 19-year olds. They can both vote and can both die in Iraq, but we can trust one to check IDs and not the other?

Perhaps there is another explanation that I can't think of; I'd love to hear it. But absent some good explanation, these laws should be repealed.

Two other alcohol related laws are worth mentioning. First, of course, is the ban on alcohol sales on Sunday. Well, it isn't really a ban; after all, you can purchase alcohol at a bar or stadium or restaurant. Hoosiers for Beverage Choice is working on this issue (and on the cold beer in grocery store issue). I just want to add two thoughts on the subject. First, even before it was legal to sell alcohol in restaurants and bars on Sundays (I think that the law changed in the late '70s), it was legal to sell alcohol on Sundays at a facility with a paved race track of not less than 2 1/2 miles (of course, the only facility that fell into that exception was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500, which was run on Sunday). If always gotten a chuckle out of that one; apparently, even when Indiana was dry on Sundays, the legislature recognized the importance to the state of the Indianapolis 500 and did what was necessary to help.

More importantly, it seems obvious that Sunday was day chosen for a limited ban on alcohol sales for religious reasons. I guess that I our legislature felt that on Sunday Hoosiers should be in church (or at a sporting event or restaurant or bar) and not at a liquor store. But we are, in essence, limiting the rights of all Hoosiers to engage in a certain form of legal commerce and recreation, apparently in order not to offend the religious sensitivities of other Hoosiers. We don't prohibit the purchase of meat on Fridays during Lent and we don't prohibit the purchase of pork or other products prohibited by certain religious belief. So why do we elevate one particular sensitivity in order to appease a particular religious constituency? Blue laws like this one (or the ban on selling cars on Sundays) have no place in the 21st Century and should be repealed.

Finally, it has recently come to my attention that for some other arcane and idiotic reasons (having primarily to do with protections for alcohol wholesalers), some wineries and wine clubs are prohibited from shipping their wines to addresses in Indiana. One might ask the legislature -- elected to represent the people of Indiana -- to explain why they believe it appropriate to protect wholesalers at the expense of individual Hoosiers. Just curious.

As Indiana fights to attract jobs and economic investment, our legislature has to look carefully at laws that make Indiana a less attractive destination and/or which make us look like hicks still living in the 19th Century. Blue laws are at the top of that list.

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At Saturday, April 10, 2010 6:48:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine article. Well written, and I agree with you.

At Tuesday, April 20, 2010 9:17:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I work in a grocery store with almost all kids younger than 18, and I don't understand this stupid law at all...


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