Last Call

Just before Prohibition, the Colorado Legislature gave us 3.2 beer. Now Blake Harrison wants to repeal the scourge.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving argues that it is not Minnesotans, but the supermarkets and their corporate lobbyists who want wine in grocery stores. "Creating more places where youth can easily get their hands on alcohol is a bad idea. We should be making it harder for them to get alcohol, not putting it next to the chocolate milk," reads the organization's website.

In Colorado, attempts to change the liquor code have been few and far between. In consultant Felicia Muftic's experience, trying to do it is so treacherous that one would never choose to go through it twice.

In 1982, the Rocky Mountain Food Dealers Association offered Muftic a job as the mouthpiece for their ballot initiative that would allow beer and wine with less than 14 percent alcohol by volume to be sold in grocery stores. It made sense to Muftic, who only drinks the occasional glass of wine. She accepted the job, convinced it would be an easy victory. Initial polls showed support at 60 percent -- but that was before the counter-campaign began. By election day, the public had been inundated with messages on teen drunkenness and wasted grandmas. Support dropped to 40 percent. "It was such a bad experience," says Muftic. "What a team the MADD mothers and the independent liquor stores made."

Blake Harrison drinks up at the 3.2 beer taste test.
Mark Manger
Blake Harrison drinks up at the 3.2 beer taste test.

When state representative Paul Weissmann was a senator in the early 1990s, he tried to repeal the blue laws. But the Louisville Democrat -- and general manager and bartender at the Blue Parrot Restaurant -- found that lawmakers were too concerned about what change would do to business owners to hear his logic. "By law, we put the small liquor stores in business. The law says you can only own one. It prohibits how close they can be to each other. We give those protections by law, but there's probably no real rational reason to do that. Essentially, we're restricting competition and driving up prices. I think our liquor laws make very little sense."

In 1998, Representative Ron Tupa, a Boulder Democrat, introduced a bill that would have allowed eighteen-year-olds to buy $100 permits authorizing them to purchase and drink 3.2 beer. Colorado's State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee held a hearing on the bill in February 1998, at which more than a dozen witnesses testified. Included among them was Modern Drunkard Frank Rich, who frequented Colorado's 3.2 bars when he was a young soldier.

Rich, drunk as usual, went to the State Capitol and listened attentively as some kids and bar owners explained their positions. "The kids were like, ŒFuck you, we're going to drink anyway, so you might as well just let us have it.' The bar owners took a strange tack. They said 3.2 beer will protect kids from liquor and the eviler alcohols. It was hilarious."

Though Rich would never label any alcohol evil, the arguments aren't far from his own logic. Kids are going to drink anyway. A bar has sober, adult bartenders, servers and bouncers. It's a safe environment for teens to learn how to drink. "You can't chug a bottle of liquor at a bar and kill yourself like they do at parties and frat houses. If they learn how to drink in the basement of frat houses, there's no bouncer or bartender there to cut 'em off and say, ŒYou've had enough,' or ŒYou're acting like an asshole.'"

The committee voted 10-2 to kill Tupa's bill.

Blake Harrison closely followed each of these failed attempts and decided that the one constant problem was the Statehouse. Allowing Sunday liquor sales was the perfect issue to take directly to the people. Harrison needed 80,000 signatures to get his initiative on the ballot in 2002, but he quickly discovered that most campaigns have to employ paid signature-gatherers to hit that goal. He tried to raise money, but he couldn't get any industry support: The liquor-store owners didn't want to work on Sunday, and the grocery stores didn't want to lose the advantage Sunday 3.2 beer sales gave them. Harrison did put together $10,000 from individual contributors and high-end wine stores such as Mondo Vino, whose owners would rather the shop be open on Sunday and closed on Monday, but it wasn't enough. He couldn't make the ballot.

After the failure, Harrison brushed himself off and started looking for the angle that would garner industry support. He knew if he pushed for grocery stores -- including chains -- to sell liquor, that the major retailers would be enticed by all the money they could make in Colorado. "Basically, all I want is liquor stores to be open on Sundays, but I would expand that to include different interest groups to align them with me, because it's apparent that I don't have enough momentum on that single issue," Harrison says. "If you say grocery stores should be able to sell liquor, which I'm also in favor of, you bring them in and shake it up a little bit."

And unlike in 1982, Harrison's not going to let anyone get away with arguing that grocery-store clerks don't know how to card people. He plans to add a provision that requires a 21-year-old employee or manager to approve all liquor sales, a policy that stores like Target already follow.

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