Q: When is a gas station that sells liquor not a gas station?
A: When New Mexico lawmakers make its owners choose between selling gas or selling liquor.
Some gas stations in a rural New Mexico county are being forced by an inane new law to choose between selling gas or selling liquor and wine. Some have chosen to close their pumps in protest and sell alcohol instead of gas.
The new ban is part of a larger package of changes to the state's liquor laws—one its chief sponsor, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D–Albuquerque), calls "the biggest reform of liquor laws in 60 years in our state." The new law contains several key elements in addition to the gas station liquor ban. Many of those changes are steps in the right direction. In fact, the "original intention" of the alcohol bill was deregulatory in nature. Among other things, it lifts a ban on home delivery of alcohol, introduces a new, less expensive liquor license for restaurants, and allows alcohol to be sold longer hours on Sundays (on par with allowable sales hours on other days).
The bad parts of the law are, well, bad. Ask the owners of Kokoman Fine Wines in Pojoaque, which was forced to try to offload $65,000 worth of nip bottles—those little liquor bottles commonly found lurking in a hotel mini-fridge—after the new law banned their sale across the state.
And then there's the ban on gas station sales in McKinley County, where three out of four county residents are Native American. Sen. George Muñoz (D–Gallup), who introduced the gas-station amendment to the new law, says he did so because "people die in McKinley County because of alcoholism."
While I have no doubt that some people in McKinley County who abuse alcohol die from that abuse, compelling gas stations that sell alcohol to become alcohol stores that don't sell gas probably won't save many (or even any) lives, and may do just the opposite. The ban is also likely unconstitutional. That's why one chain of gas stations has sued the state to overturn it.
"Western Refining Retail has 115 stores and gas stations in New Mexico," KRQE reported this summer. "It's claiming it's unconstitutional for the state to keep it from selling liquor at 10 of its locations in McKinley County." The report notes that grocery stores, other liquor stores, restaurants, and bars are exempt from the ban.
The ban is also insulting and paternalistic and relies on shopworn, agency-robbing mythologies about Native Americans and alcohol. For example, a 1992 article in the Washington Post focused on "the long-held myth of 'The Drunken Indian,' a myth that portrays Native Americans as having an inborn weakness for alcohol." Recent articles, including this one, have made similar points. Yet vestiges of racist views about Native Americans and alcohol are slow to die in this country. Native Americans were subject to alcohol Prohibition until 1953. A ban on Native American distillery ownership, which dated back to the presidency of genocidal, anti-Native American lunatic Andrew Jackson, was lifted by Congress only in 2018.
But Muñoz stands by his ban.
"Just because it's legal, doesn't mean it should be readily available and convenient in every single location," Muñoz says.
While Muñoz may have been speaking about liquor, he may as well have been speaking about gasoline. After all, some gas stations unhappy with being targeted by the new law have protested by choosing to stop selling gas and continuing to sell liquor.
Muñoz told the paper he wasn't surprised by the gas station's actions, and suggested they were thinking only of profit margins.
"I think they made a moral choice, a financial choice," Muñoz told the Journal. "They probably weren't pumping that much gas. They were just really liquor stores with a gas pump outside." Now they're just a liquor store, pumping no gas.
Not surprisingly, the sudden lack of gasoline in remote areas along the Arizona border is having a negative impact on county residents. "The choice to stop selling gas in rural parts of the county has stranded some motorists and added another inconvenience to life near the border of the Navajo Nation," the Albuquerque Journal reported this week.
The new law targeting McKinley County gas stations and consumers also arrived nearly in tandem with a state high court ruling that encourages gas stations across the state not to sell gas—a decision that's also tied to alcohol. In that case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that gas stations may be "liable for drunk drivers if they sell them fuel."
All told, New Mexico's message to residents seems to be that buying more alcohol and less gas will make the state a safer and healthier place.