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Washington lawmakers mull rules for powdered alcohol

Chad Sokol Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – Many states are banning powdered alcohol – a controversial product that turns water into rum or vodka. But in Washington, lawmakers want to legalize, tax and regulate it just like liquid booze.

The product, which goes by the brand name Palcohol, can’t be sold in the United States pending approval from federal regulators. Five states have laws that would keep it from hitting shelves, if that happens, and bans are being considered in at least a dozen more. Lawmakers there say it’s dangerous, unnecessary and too easy to misuse.

Washington senators took a different approach this week, unanimously passing a bill that would allow powdered alcohol to be sold and consumed under all the same restrictions that apply to hard liquor.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, the bill’s prime sponsor, said the state needs regulations to keep the product away from minors.

“Powdered alcohol is a substance that I think could be abused by children, particularly,” she said.

The starchy powder comes in small packets and a variety of cocktail flavors. Mixed with water, it can take on the flavor of a cosmopolitan, a mojito or a margarita. It’s marketed as a convenient way for backpackers to enjoy a stiff drink after a long hike, without carrying all the weight of a liquid.

Washington would join Delaware and Michigan in allowing stores to sell powdered alcohol. But first, it needs approval from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board, said it’s too early to tell how powdered alcohol would impact the liquor market in Washington.

“We’ll continue to monitor it,” Carpenter said.

Meanwhile, Colorado, New York, Florida and Wisconsin are among states considering bans. Lawmakers have raised concerns about the potential to misuse powdered alcohol, by snorting or inhaling it, spiking an unsuspecting person’s food or drinks, or combining it with other alcoholic beverages.

After the bill’s first hearing in January, Roach said she was unaware other states have banned the product because of safety concerns. She said it’s already being sold in Washington, without taxes or regulations.

“What’s going on now is that people are picking this stuff up at convenience stores, stop-and-gos,” she said. “It’s out there.”

But Tom Hogue, a U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau spokesman, said he’s never heard of black market powdered alcohol.

“To the best of my knowledge, we have not had any reports of that,” Hogue said.

Palcohol is made by Lipsmark LLC, a start-up based in Arizona. The company was temporarily licensed to sell the product in April 2014, but the bureau revoked the license, claiming it had been issued in error. Lipsmark quickly reapplied for federal approval, but that hasn’t been granted.

Roach’s bill is headed to the House, where it could get a hearing in the coming weeks.

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