An article in today’s Oregonian (it was published online last night) details the early discussions in Salem about legislation that would dramatically alter where and how liquor is sold here in Oregon. It is a potentially complex issue, one made no simpler by the potential Oregon dram shop law issues raised by the bill.
According to the newspaper: “Under a so-called “hybrid” plan… the state would maintain its monopoly control over liquor but would allow sales in large grocery chains. Smaller state-licensed liquor stores would remain, and merchants would be allowed to set their own prices above a stipulated floor.”
The Oregonian adds that if the plan, which is being proposed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, becomes law it “would represent the biggest shale-up of Oregon’s liquor delivery system since Prohibition ended 80 years ago.” The paper notes that there are other liquor law reform proposals under discussion in Salem this winter, including “a possible ballot measure that would take the state out of the liquor sales business and hand it over to the private sector.”
The basic argument in favor of opening up liquor sales is that selling alcohol is not something the government ought to be doing in the first place, not, at least, in this day and age. Arrayed against this are fears that wider availability could encourage underage drinking, reduce customer choice of liquor brands or cause prices to rise.
As a Portland drunk driving victims attorney, however, one issue that sticks out to me is the increased exposure to Oregon’s dram shop laws that these changes might extend to supermarkets. Oregon’s strict laws can extend liability for a drunk driving accident back to the establishment, and even the individual clerk responsible for the sale of liquor to someone who later commits a crime or causes an accident while driving under the influence. One can argue that many of the supermarkets and larger chain stores that could begin selling liquor under the proposed measure already sell beer and wine and, thus, already have both a degree of legal exposure and a presumed familiarity with the Dram Shop Law. This is true in a narrow sense, but it is equally true that Oregon and many other states have long treated liquor sales as something distinct and different from wine and beer for a reason. A bottle of vodka or bourbon can get more people drunker faster than a bottle of wine the same size.
Clearly we are in for several months of detailed, and interesting, discussion as this year’s legislative session unfolds. Oregon’s dram shop laws are a powerful tool to encourage restaurants, bars and retail outlets to act responsibly. It is important for our legislators to think about the dram shop laws and the best way to enforce them before making any changes to our state’s liquor laws.