The Thirsty Beagle: Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma makes U-turn on alcohol reform

Monday, September 14, 2015

Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma makes U-turn on alcohol reform

When State Sen. Stephanie Bice introduced Senate Bill 383 in the last legislative session, it was greeted with near-universal excitement by craft beer consumers and brewers in Oklahoma.

The primary intent of the law as introduced was to allow beer to be stored in liquor stores at a temperature below room temperature. The bill quickly came to be known as the "refrigeration bill."

While blogging about the bill and writing for The Oklahoman, I interviewed several liquor store owners who voiced strong support for the measure. In the months that followed, I talked to other liquor store owners who quietly expressed their opposition to the move. 

Caught right in the middle was the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, the group that represents many of the liquor store owners on each side of the issue.

At the time, the RLAO -- clearly trying to play it down the middle -- announced a stance of "neutral" on the bill. That was until the bill hit the political machine, started to snowball and became something different altogether.

By the end of the legislative session, what started as the "refrigeration bill" turned into the "re-write Oklahoma's constitution" bill. It became a complete do-over on the section of the constitution that deals with alcohol.

That did not sit well with the RLAO. They posted this statement on their website:

"SB 383 has been passed by the full house. ... The bill will now move to conference and will move forward from there with a target of allowing people to vote in November of 2016 on whatever the language of the bill looks like at that point. 

"The RLAO was originally neutral on this bill because, although it would result in additional expense for the retailer, it was a convenience for the consumer without sacrificing public safety or increasing youth access to strong alcohol.

"The RLAO now strongly opposes this bill since it was amended to require a change of the Oklahoma Constitution to allow all current 3.2 outlets to sell strong beer and malt beverages. This would include grocery stores, convenience stores, 'beer bars,' golf courses, restaurants and many others.

"The practical effect of this bill would be much easier access to an intoxicating product for those under 21 as well as a greater number of alcohol-related crimes for those over 21 due to higher levels of intoxication from consuming products that now have up to FIVE TIMES as much alcohol than the product that is currently allowed to be sold through these outlets. This bill would include such products as Four Loko, Colt 45 Blast, Mike's Hard Lemonade and many 40oz high-alcohol malt beverages."

A very strong stance, indeed. (And one that made a lot of assumptions that weren't necessarily backed up with statistics, I might say -- Oklahoma's crime rate is higher than many states with single-strength alcohol laws. But I digress, that's an argument for another time and day.)

Well, what a difference a few months make.

On Sept. 10, the RLAO posted on Facebook that they would be issuing a press release for their plans to modernize Oklahoma's liquor laws. That release is now out, published by the Daily Ardmoreite, of all sources, and here are the measures proposed by the RLAO:

1. Oklahoma should move to single strength (strong) refrigerated beer for all outlets which currently sell either “3.2” or “strong” beer.

2. As a matter of convenience, wine should be available for purchase in a limited number of grocery stores.

3. Customers should be able to buy mixers, corkscrews, glassware, cigars and other items inside their local retail package store.

4. Customers should be able to order our products and have them delivered by a properly licensed employee of a retail package store.

5. Customers should be allowed to attend tastings inside the premises of a retail package store.

6. Customers should be permitted to bring their child with them into a retail package store.

7. Customers should be allowed to buy liquor, wine and beer from a retail package store on Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day.

8. Customers should have access to growlers and “crowlers” filled and sealed at a retail package store.

Bryan Kerr, president of the RLAO, issued this quote as well:

“This summer, we conducted a poll through the most respected pollster in Oklahoma, Bill Shapard of Sooner Poll, and we heard the customer loud and clear. We are committed to meeting the needs of the Oklahoma consumer without sacrificing public safety or increasing access of the product to teens and others who should not have it,” Kerr said.

In addition, Kerr commented on the matter of on-premise sales for breweries in the state:

“It seems silly and unfair that a consumer can go to any winery in our state and enjoy a glass of wine and then buy a bottle of that exact product but they can't do the same at Oklahoma breweries,” Kerr said.

While the eight proposed changes do not specifically address on-premise sales, or issues of distribution and self-distribution, I think we can all agree these are some long-overdue changes.

The key of course, will be that little matter covered in the RLAO's earlier statement on SB 383:

"The bill will now move to conference and will move forward from there with a target of allowing people to vote in November of 2016 on whatever the language of the bill looks like at that point."

If the RLAO's suggestions find traction in the Legislature and in the writing of the language for the 2016 state question remain to be seen.

Regardless, my thought is that this can be interpreted as nothing less than another sign that the tide of alcohol reform in Oklahoma has not only turned, but is picking up strength.


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