A century ago, liquor — not geography or the economy — split the state into “two Maines.”
Temperance advocates like Stroudwater resident Lillian Stevens, who in 1913 decried the “home-destroying, heart-breaking curse of liquor traffic,” fought to maintain the “dry Maine” first established in 1851.
“Wet Maine” proponents at the time urged repeal of a state constitutional amendment that prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages in Maine, in part because the ban was ineffective and impossible to enforce.
“Dry Maine” prevailed until 1934, when the United States repealed the national prohibition on liquor sales. Since then, liquor sales have become an important revenue source for state government, and Maine lawmakers have shaken and stirred the state’s liquor laws, incrementally expanding the time frames in which merlot and Millers can be sold.
State law now allows licensees in Maine to sell liquor “from 6 a.m. on any day until 1 a.m. the following day.” Liquor sales also are prohibited until 9 a.m. Sunday. The law allows certain exceptions related to New Year’s Eve revelry; there are slightly different rules for the times alcohol can be consumed on premises.
Two proposals before the Legislature would alter the time limits for alcohol sales again. LD 15, sponsored by Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, would allow sales to start at 5 a.m. seven days a week. LD 216, sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, would simply allow earlier liquor sales on a Sunday if St. Patrick’s Day falls on Sunday, as is the case this year.
It’s ironic that the Legislature would pass LD 216 on an emergency basis “for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety,” so the bill could take effect immediately and allow Mainers to honor a saint on a Sunday by imbibing stout, whiskey or other libation before 9 a.m. But that irony shouldn’t stop Hobbins’ bill, and LD 15, from passing.
Both measures came in response to constituents’ requests, drew scant opposition and would help support businesses, albeit in a small way. But the proposals also call into question the drip-drip-drip approach to amending Maine’s liquor laws. What is the reasoning behind forbidding convenience stores and liquor stores from selling alcohol in the early morning hours?
The Community Preventive Services Task Force — an independent body of public health and prevention experts whose members are appointed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — reviewed existing research in 2009 and found some evidence that limiting the days or times alcohol can be sold prevents excessive alcohol consumption and related harms. But none of the studies were completed in the U.S.; there was considerable variation across different sites; and they all focused on businesses that sold alcohol to be consumed on-site — bars, not convenience stores.
There doesn’t appear to be any convincing reason why people should be prohibited from purchasing alcohol from their convenience store at 3 a.m., for example, but not 6 a.m. Instead of Maine banning the sale of alcoholic beverages for a few hours in the middle of each night, then revising state law to reflect changing work patterns — or in response to “emergencies” such as when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday — why not remove all state restrictions on the times when alcohol can be sold at a store?
Gilbert said he introduced the bill at the request of a constituent who owns a convenience store whose customers include mill workers with shifts that end at 5 a.m. The same arguments in support of Gilbert’s bill would apply if shifts ended two hours earlier, and Gilbert said he would not object to an amendment allowing liquor sales any time.
Unless someone in Maine can demonstrate that the state’s residents are safer because they can’t buy alcoholic beverages between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. — or 5 a.m., if LD 15 passes — it’s time to toss away the last vestiges of Prohibition.