Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Maryland's Twenty-First Century Prohibition

By Tom McQuighan.

Some Maryland residents have found that buying a favorite wine requires a trip to DC, VA, or WV and a surreptitious return. Others are shocked when, after spending a glorious day touring California wineries, they learn what they taste cannot be shipped home. And still others have been chagrined to learn that they cannot get a gift basket delivered if it contains a bottle of wine. Maryland is one of only four states that make direct shipping of wine a felony.

That could change if the Direct Wine Shipper SB 566 , sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin is passed by the MD assembly. If history is a guide, it will fail despite the bi-partisan group of 107 MD legislators that co-sponsor it – including 85% of the MoCo delegation. Direct Wine Shipper HB716 , House sponsor, Del. Carolyn Krysiak, Baltimore City, says that the very first constituent to visit her 20 years ago in the House was one who wanted these laws changed. If it goes her way, history will be made.

The Post opined in it is OP-ED “Maryland's liquor lobby and the politics of obstruction” that this “absurdity is a creation of Sen. Miller, Del. Busch and their legislative lieutenants in Annapolis influenced by the toxic of the liquor lobby's campaign cash.” But what is different this year is a smart, grassroots campaign led by Adam Borden and Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws (MBBWL). Borden, of Baltimore City, has met with legislators, citizens, farm bureaus and government agencies across the state to encourage passage. Borden has even inspired Robert Parker, the world-acclaimed wine critic and Maryland resident, to write Governor O’Malley a personal plea for changes to the law.

Every Montgomery County Senator has signed on as a sponsor. The Montgomery County position on this measure under current leadership is to not oppose it. Even the Department of Liquor Control notes that in similar “control” 3-tier states such as New Hampshire the law work well: as it does not increase underage abuse, or impact retail store sales. Peter Franchot, State Treasurer, in a departure from his predecessor William Donald Schaefer, points to the tax benefits and potential to increase in-state wineries jobs as reasons to support it. Only 5 MOCO Delegates have not: Herman Taylor, D14; William Bronrott, D16; Kumar Barve D17; Sheila Hixson D20; and Charles Barkley D39.

Borden has used social media, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Meet up and YouTube as part of a campaign that counts on hundreds of volunteers to make this a hot issue throughout the state. All of this points to why an army of thousands have signed petitions, focused letters to their elected and expect a different outcome. You’ll see them again at the Rockville Wine Festival this summer looking for answers if this gets hung up again due to committee wrangling.

The steam throughout the State against such potential obstructionists was captured by The Baltimore Sun in “Thwarting Public Opinion Over Wine Law Would be Serious Mistake.” The Sun says that “elected officials who act contrary to the views of voters are likely to find the electorate unforgiving this November. Woe to any politician who thinks the voters won't notice such glaring arrogance.” Borden says it differently, “2010 will be the MD Vintage for Direct Wine Shipping. Every year a few holdout states jump on board, so an election year is perfect time to do so in MD. It costs the state nothing, raises revenue and creates jobs, what is not to like about that?”

On the recent You Tube press announcement, Sen. Raskin, despite his lack of personal interest in a drink that gives him headaches, says he sponsors this bill because the issue commands extraordinary popularity across the state and that he is responding to the yearly deluge of calls to his office. Sen. Pugh, Baltimore County, the other lead Senator, and another non-drinker, says Marylanders should have same rights as citizens in other states.

Ironically, the rules, which date back to Prohibition and were intended to rein in organized crime, now serve as catalyst for turning even the most casual wine enthusiasts into felony smugglers. Some of these say that Prohibition did not end the tradition of alcohol distributors paying officials for political favors.

Time will tell if mbbwl.org efforts will make a difference this year. The hearing in the House is scheduled for Friday, March 5.

INTERESTING FACT: "There are two ways, and only two ways, in which an ordinary private citizen ... can violate the United States Constitution. One is to enslave someone, a suitably hellish act. The other is to bring a bottle of beer, wine, or bourbon into a State in violation of its beverage control laws—an act that might have been thought juvenile, and perhaps even lawless, but unconstitutional?" Laurence Tribe, Professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School.

Tom McQuighan is the Montgomery County Coordinator of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws.