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Bills would loosen Washington’s liquor laws

OLYMPIA – For all the attention being paid to legal marijuana this session, it’s the more traditional legal intoxicant – alcohol – providing Washington legislators with a greater array of possible changes to state law.

More than a dozen bills working their way through the legislative process would increase a person’s ability to consume some form of alcohol at some new setting.

A glass of beer or wine in the theater? Several proposals for that.

How about a shot of something stronger with that movie? Separate bill for that.

Taste a bit of that expensive scotch before buying it at the store? The stores would like to oblige.

Free glass of wine with that massage and pedicure? Could be legal later this year.

Let college students who are 18 to 21 taste wine if they are in viticulture classes? Prospects look good, although the students won’t be allowed to swallow.

Buy a growler of cider at the local microbrewery? Maybe not; could be a problem under federal law.

Some say the Legislature has more ideas to loosen up liquor laws because voters in 2011 got the state out of the liquor business. Others say there aren’t more ideas, they’re just being doled out piecemeal rather than wrapped in a single piece of legislation, called an omnibus bill.

Last year’s omnibus bill died, and with it, all the work on liquor revisions, said Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake. This year, the strategy is to push them individually.

Derek Franklin of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention testified last Friday against many efforts to loosen alcohol consumption rules. Drinking in theaters and stores would push “the normalization of alcohol,” he said, sending teens a message it’s OK to drink, as well as get in a car to drive after imbibing. Each proposal “may seem small by comparison, but it puts incremental chips in the wall that protects our kids,” he said.

Franklin believes the Legislature saw a sharp increase in efforts to expand access to alcohol as a consequence of Initiative 1183, which got the state out of the wholesale and retail alcohol business last year, turning the sale of distilled spirits over to private license holders. Businesses look for additional ways to make money, and the state looks for new revenue from a heavily taxed product, he said.

Rick Garza of the Liquor Control Board said the Legislature always has some bills to address the state’s liquor laws, but it faces few new ideas this year. Many tweak existing laws, such as House Bill 1149, which was among the bills approved Monday by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Current law says a craft distillery can only sell two liters of its products to one customer in a day; the bill would raise that to three liters.

Two other bills would change the rules for the kinds of stores that can offer samples of alcohol: One would allow big-box stores like Target to offer beer and wine samples by removing the current rule that half of a store’s sales must be for groceries in order to offer samples. Another would let liquor stores, wineries and craft distilleries offer samples of spirits, but no more than a half-ounce per sample, and only three samples per customer.

Some fail one year and come back the next, Garza said, like a proposal to allow day spas to buy a license to offer a free glass of wine or beer to a customer. The Senate passed a bill to make that legal last month on a 42-7 vote, but it has some resistance in the House, where there are questions whether it’s so broad it would allow free drinks at every nail salon in the state.

Another recurring request would loosen restrictions on selling alcohol in theaters. Some venues already offer alcohol on a limited basis by buying a tavern or restaurant license, then selling drinks away from the main concession stand in an area closed to minors. Two proposals would set up a special license for beer and wine sales in movie theaters, and another would add distilled spirits to the options.

Allowing more latitude in the sale of alcoholic beverages may be a key to keeping some of the state’s restored movie houses open, several owners told the Commerce Committee last week. Some big multiplexes already do it by restricting one of their many screens for adults. The one- and two-screen theaters need alcohol sales to compete, said Rand Thornsley, owner of the 1927 Liberty Theater in Camas.

“Unless we can find some new means of revenue, we’re not going to be able to continue beyond this year,” he said.

New this year are proposals to allow college students who are at least 18 but not yet 21 to sample wine as part of a course in culinary arts or viticulture. With the state’s burgeoning wine industry, some universities and community colleges offer courses in the science of making wine, and students should at least be allowed to sample their product and spit it out, said Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, sponsor of House Bill 1459.

“It’s similar to taking a cooking class and not being able to taste the food you made,” Holmquist Newbry said.

Also new is a proposal to allow patrons to refill a growler – a large personal container – with hard cider. State law already allows customers to buy a growler of beer or ale at a bar or tavern and drink it at home, but not hard cider.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said the idea for House Bill 1008 was suggested by his daughter, who was told at a local microbrewery they couldn’t fill her growler with hard cider. The reason: Cider is considered a wine, not a beer, by the federal government for tax purposes. And growler sales of wine aren’t allowed.

Hard cider is making a comeback among consumers, and Washington, with its plentiful orchards, is leading the way in resurrecting the industry, Holmquist Newbry said.

But Hunt’s bill may need more time to ferment. Garza said the federal agency that collects alcohol taxes isn’t set up to collect revenue on growlers of cider. “This could be a violation of federal law,” he said.