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Free Minds & Free Markets

In Pennsylvania, Prohibition Is Finally Losing Its Grip

Keystone State alcohol regulations were among the strictest in the nation. Now the commonwealth is on the brink of fully liberalizing its liquor laws.

For decades, Pennsylvania has had some of the strangest rules about where, and how, you could buy alcohol.

I knew them well. Having grown up in Pennsylvania and returned there for a few years after college, I got used to explaining those rules—"I know, I know, it's crazy, but we have to stop here to get the beer, and then we have to drive across town to get the whiskey"—to out-of-staters who would come to visit. Every state has weird rules about liquor, but everyone could agree that Pennsylvania's were the worst.

Beer was only available from distributors and you couldn't get anything smaller than a full case (24 bottles or cans), unless you went to a bar that had a license to sell six-packs to-go and paid a hefty premium for the convenience. Wine and spirits were only available from one of the 600 or so state-owned-and-operated liquor stores. In rural parts of the state, that could mean driving half an hour or more out of the way, since the state stores are clustered in cities and suburbs.

That's changing. In fact, the changes have come so quickly that someone who moved out of the state as recently as 2013—as I did—can be stunned when returning home to visit friends and family. Now, I'm the confused out-of-stater who needs an explanation about where you can go to buy which products.

Many of the state's rules were legacies of Prohibition. But they began changing in the early 2010s, when a few large grocery stores began exploiting a loophole in state law that let them operate with a restaurant license and sell six-packs of beer. Unsurprisingly, the idea proved popular. Even as political efforts at broader booze reforms went nowhere in Harrisburg, the state capital, it became gradually easier to buy smaller quantities of beer. Other changes in the past few years made it legal for beer distributors to sell 12-packs, then six-packs. After a major political compromise in 2016, it's now possible to buy beer and wine at grocery stores. A limited number of large convenience stores attached to gas stations can also sell beer to-go, after a longstanding prohibition on selling booze and gasoline at the same spot was lifted last year.

For all the changes, there are still two big, related problems.

First, liberalized rules for the purchasing of wine and beer are good, but the changes have ignored hard liquor, which accounts for 53 percent of all sales in Pennsylvania's "Fine Wine and Good Spirits" shops. For whiskey, tequila, rum, and so on, the only option is taking a trip to a state-controlled liquor store and paying the state-determined price. The second problem is that it's still impossible to buy all types of alcohol in a single location, because the state-run liquor stores can sell wine and spirits, but not beer, while beer distributors and grocery stores can sell suds and vino, but none of the hard stuff.

Special interests on both sides of the aisle—primarily the public-sector unions representing state liquor-store employees on the left, and on the right, the beer-selling businesses unwilling to give up their special privileges and anticompetitive markets—helped keep Pennsylvania's awkward, anachronistic system in place for decades. But they've seen their influence wane, ever so slightly, in the past few years. A shifting political climate and an out-of-state grocery store chain fractured the delicate balance, and a Republican speaker of the state House and Democratic governor have done their part to liberalize the state's alcohol regulations.

Finally, Pennsylvania might be on the brink of recovering from an 83-year hangover.

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  • Robert||

    Why would privatiz'n threaten jobs? It's not as if there'd be fewer liquor stores.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    But having multiple employers and competition means workers have to actually do their jobs well.

  • Mrs. Premise||

    PA Liquor store employees are public employees with generous pensions. It's doubtful that they would get the same deal with a private company. Plus, they might have to be helpful and pleasant to the customers.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I remember, after coming back to PA after serving in the military and returning to PA, asking an LCB employee where the beer was. Not available here. Then I had to go to a third store to buy snacks. In Taiwan, that's a few minutes in a convenience store across the street.

  • gaoxiaen||

    +1 no open container law

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Is there anything coercive government can't fuck up?

    I long ago came to the conclusion that monopolistic government is incapable of doing anything competently, because it has no competition to judge its actions, no fear of bankruptcy to keep owners on their toes, a single company which prevents investors making choices and leaves employees uninterested in finding better jobs. I have never seen a single government agency which is well run or efficient or innovative.

  • JPMcGrath||

    When prohibition ended, governor Gifford Pinchot set up the liquor control system in order to (in his words) "discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible."

    This is one case where government was very effective. 84 years later, it is still very inconvenient and expensive.

  • jimheffner||

    He only got away with this because of his popularity as a Roosevelt Democrat. His getting the farmers products to market on his blacktop "Pinchot Roads" and other progressive stands let him bull through his pet bills.

  • Chuck in CR||

    All I can think is that people actually allow this to be. There must not be any tar and pitchfork stores in PA.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Yes, pitchforks are sold on the west side of town , tar on the east side.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    And feathers, if desired, are only sold in tractor trailer loads.

  • No Yards Penalty||

    First step would be putting MADD on the terrorist watch list and Gitmo'ing every member.

  • jimheffner||

    I haven't had a drink since 1976 and still think alcohol is a poison, but prohibition and/or over regulation doesn't work. I'll never understand how you can send an 18 year old into combat but deny them a beer. I'm an 11th generation Pennsylvanian, grew up there and from the age of 16 on never had a problem getting a drink during or after hours. Laws are only effective with popular support. It's time to stop allowing the political players to call the shots. Willy's Woods needs to return to sanity.
    By the way, it's also time to re-legalize Cannabis just like it was for 12,000 years of its human association. Next time you thank a Vet for our service just help ensure us the freedoms we fought for and let us grow our own.

  • ||

    They may be anti-competitive, but that doesn't mean they suffer from a monopoly effect price inflation. The profit earned by state liquor stores replaces de jure taxation. It's the reason why NH state liquor stores are cheaper than neighboring free market, yet high tax, states.

    So the consumer benefit to freeing spirits from the state run monopoly is much more about convenience than it is about price.

  • SutureSelf||

    "But they began changing in the early 2010s, when a few large grocery stores began exploiting a loophole..."

    There's no such thing as a loophole. "Loophole" is a word people (generally prohibitionists of one stripe or another) use to describe compliance with a law in a manner they don't like.