Massachusetts Voters May Finally Get a Chance To Repeal the State's Awful Cap on Beer and Wine Sales

For too long, state lawmakers have played favorites with booze laws. Will they finally let voters decide where they can buy?


One Massachusetts-based convenience store chain announced this month a new effort to break a state stranglehold on beer and wine sales.

Cumberland Farms filed a proposed ballot measure with the state. The chain, affectionately known as "Cumbies," boasts nearly 600 locations across New England, Florida, and New York. And even though there are more than 200 Cumberland Farms locations in Massachusetts alone, current law means that only seven locations are allowed to sell beer and wine. Seven out of 200! 

That's because the state caps the number of liquor licenses any single retailer may own. And even that pitifully small number of seven required a fight. Under a 2011 compromise between supermarkets and small liquor stores, the number will balloon next year for chains such as Cumberland Farms, from seven to nine. That's peanuts.

If that doesn't sound good enough to you, either, then you're not alone. Last year, in a lengthy report, a task force of the Massachusetts Alcohol Beverages Control Commission made sweeping recommendations for grocery stores that included eliminating the cap on retail alcohol licenses.

Matt Durand, policy director for Cumberland Farms, told in an interview last week that it was time to put the state's "archaic laws" around alcohol sales and convenience stores to bed. If the company's proposed ballot measure succeeds, it would phase out the cap and also let cities and towns decide, under a new licensing system, whether to allow convenience stores to sell beer and wine to retail customers.

The ballot measure has a long way to go before it makes it to the ballot or, even if it passes, from impacting the day-to-day life of consumers and convenience store owners: "It has to be certified by Attorney General Maura Healey's office, garner more than 80,000 signatures, and be presented to the Legislature before voters have a chance to weigh in," reports. "The proposed ballot question would lift the limit on so-called Section 15 liquor licenses a single retailer could hold to 12 in 2021, 15 in 2022, 18 in 2023, and then eliminate the statewide cap in 2024." It would also allow people to buy alcohol in the state with an out-of-state driver's license, which is currently and bizarrely illegal in Massachusetts.

Opponents of the convenience-store ballot measure—chief amongst them smaller local liquor stores, known across the state as "package stores"—call the proposed deregulation "predatory" and suggest "it would destabilize the marketplace, as bigger players use their buying power to muscle out mom-and-pops in the package store industry."

The head of the state's package store association says the ballot measure flies in the face of the 2011 agreement between his group and grocers in the state. But, notes, "convenience stores were not involved in that deal," meaning that the 2011 bargain was largely a compromise between two competing parties at the expense of a third.

I grew up in Massachusetts. I'm the son of a one-time convenience store owner. I'm more aware than many that the state's alcohol laws are generally awful. Massachusetts has banned happy-hour drink specials since the mid-1980s. And, as I lamented in June, Massachusetts lawmakers at the time were busy cracking down on the state's popular beer gardens.

Massachusetts's drinkers deserve more choice, not less. For that to happen, lawmakers in the state must resist their worst urges, namely the urge to pass laws that protect one segment of an industry at the expense of consumers and other industry segments. The convenience store ballot measure, though, would allow consumers to decide. If the measure makes it to the ballot, I'm confident Massachusetts voters will make the right choice—the one state lawmakers should have made years ago.