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Feb 07

Life as a ‘legal drug dealer’

I sat in the backseat, my brother next to me. Mom, driving. Dad in the passenger seat. The year was 2007. It was winter and we were heading North, to the home of Auntie & Uncle for a Christmastime celebration. I was sharing stories about building our beer store, of this great beverage coined “craft beer.” My brother interjects, asking what I took as sincere, yet may have been in sarcasm, “What’s it like to be a legal drug dealer?

I pondered the question. My response, at that time, had more to do with personal responsibility than what it’s like to be a merchant of beer. My response, “Legal drug dealer?! Yes, beer is a controlled substance. We check IDs. We don’t sell to the intoxicated. We encourage drinking at home. Our customers are then responsible for how they use.” I also rambled on about most alcoholics are likely to drink cheap mass-quantity beer rather than craft beer… or even more likely, to buy spirits and hard liquor.

Today, I ponder the question again. I think about my customers—

The young man, in his twenties, at checkout counter. He presents a mix pack. I remove the bottles, line them along the counter, and begin scanning. As I do this, I thank him for wearing his 99 Bottles Club t-shirt. His response, “I love it! I almost wore it to a court date for a DUI.” I feel my face go flush, I respond, “Oh, I hope not!” He laughs. Says he decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to wear a beer shirt before the Judge. I wonder, “Did he drink and drive after buying from us?”

Another twenty-something with multiple growlers, telling me that he and his buddy are developing stamina for Oktoberfest. Their goal: “To consume two gallons of delicious craft beer between the two of them in a single night.” I listen to him as I fill his growler jugs, glance at each beer’s ABVs. I think about the lovely flavors and aromatics of each beer. The thickness on the palate. Likely they’ll feel full before they advance beyond the first 1/2 gallon. I ring up his order, and think, “$53 for one night? That’s going to get expensive fast…”

Now, six years into this business, I still suspect that most alcoholics are likely to drink cheap mass-quantity beer and/or spirits & hard liquor rather than specialty beer. (Or, perhaps, both hard liquor and good craft beer.)

Other than what customers tell me and what beers I see at checkout, I have no idea of my customers’ drinking habits. I provide a good product, those who appreciate it return to buy again.

As for acting as a “legal drug dealer,” the main thing to concern oneself with is “The Law.”

The Feds & Beer

Beer is a Federally controlled substance in America, and alcohol sold in the USA must follow the laws, regulations and rulings of the ATF. They say this “protects our communities from the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.” Illegal diversion? That sounds pretty important.

As a retailer, my main insights into “Beer Regulation by the ATF” is via conversations had with breweries, beer importers, and beer distributors. There’s a lot of licensing involved, all labels must be approved, the primary purpose of all this is taxation.

I have no contact with the ATF — alcohol retailers fall under State jurisdiction.

The Power of State Jurisdiction… this is why there’s ongoing debates about online alcohol sales and taxation collection across state borders (and the negative impacts of alcohol) under The CARE Act. But that’s a whole different topic. ;-)

The State & Beer

The actual ATF look nothing like this.At the State level, this is where retailers (breweries, brewpubs, taverns, groceries, restaurants, specialty wine/beer stores) are licensed. Wholesalers (distributors, breweries, wineries, cideries) are also licensed by the State. There are quite a few Laws, Rules & Guidelines we must follow. Washington State’s Laws and Rules are available online; I believe the Guidelines are more in place to help State Liquor Agents enforce the Laws & Rules. I must abide by State Laws on things like this—

  • Beers I obtain – can only purchase from Licensed Distributors (in Washington State, breweries can license to self-distribute, even if they’re an out-of-state brewery — a liberal move by our Liquor Board)
  • Beers I sell – can only sell to unintoxicated possessing valid I.D. (checking points on a license such as “is it expired?” not just confirming legal drinking age via birthdate) [Thing to do before you die: Refuse sale due to an expired license and get expletives hurled at you; things you've likely never heard before!]
  • How I market and sell beer – there’s a lot to this, plus more rulings each year. Basically samples poured at my shop must be provided by my shop (not gifted from brewer/distributor – costs me money), give-aways over a certain dollar amount must be purchased by my business to give out (e.g., our glass give-away events are all subsidized by my business – so we always hope for good turnout & shopping response), there can be no “enticements” to purchase more alcohol (e.g., no “buy six and get a free…”), no giving away or running loss-leaders, etc.
  • How I serve beer – strictly adhering to legal pour/serving limits and I.D. checks when offering samples
  • When I sell beer – maintaining state-auditable records with time-date stamps; selling only within posted business hours
  • Reporting – submit monthly reports detailing products received from out-of-state state-licensed distributors

My brother wasn’t expecting an answer dealing with the ins-and-outs of Federal and State restrictions placed on my life as a “legal drug dealer.” His interest more on health consequences, on neuropsychiatric disorders, brain aneurysms and the like.

Health & Alcohol

There are reports that cite alcohol as a risk factor for global burden of disease. Another study uncovers that “average volume consumed” and “pattern of drinking” have an affect on the biochemical effects of alcohol (good vs. bad), intoxication and dependence.

While an interesting and controversial topic, I’d hope that most of my customers fall into receiving the “good” biochemical effects of alcohol, rather than the bad. But that’s all in how they use it. It’s up to them being responsible for themselves, and hopefully they won’t adversely affect others by their behavioral choices.

1 comment

  1. The Beer Simpleton

    For a year in 2008 I lived in Washington State and fell in love with it. But certain things stood out as a culture shock for a Texan like me. Back then liquor was legally only sold through government owned liquor stores and I was told that the prices were the same across each store, even though I discovered that to be inaccurate. I was very glad to hear that Washington State finally decided to take a more modern approach to selling alcoholic substances to its inhabitants, but it seems they still have a lot of road to cover after reading your article.

    I am not involved in the monetized distribution of alcohol in any way, but that line about the restrictions placed on you in how you market and sell your beer really struck a nerve with me. That sounds downright unfair to you and limits fair business practices that any other business has access to. You have no way of controlling what people do with what they’ve bought from you or anyone else once they leave your store. Theoretically a person may walk in to buy a bottle of vodka and be “persuaded” or “marketed” to walk out with 4 bottles of vodka and 2 cases of craft beer. Without getting too involved in why this is set up the way it is, can it be fair to say that WA State liquor stores might be controlled to remove all merchandise from their shelves and simply have a salesperson ask them what they are looking for so that the salesperson may go in the back and remove it from the store’s stockroom? All this in an attempt to ensure the customer does not walk out with any more then what they had intended? Excessive, I know, but in the same line of thinking, is it not?

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