Governor Tom Wolf has declared that Pennsylvania should legalize recreational marijuana as part of a plan to recover from the economic crash that accompanied the coronavirus outbreak. It is reasonable to question whether stupefying the populace is better than getting them back to work — but perhaps the more interesting point is that Wolf is looking to make his state the first to end drug prohibition before it does alcohol prohibition. If he has his way, it will be easier to purchase weed than whiskey in the Commonwealth.
It’s a bizarre turn of events. Alcohol has been technically legal in Pennsylvania since 1933, but the state has done its best to hamper consumption of booze since the Twenty-First Amendment was passed. At the time, Pennsylvanians voted overwhelmingly to repeal Prohibition, but then-Governor Gifford Pinchot and his fellow progressives did their best to make sure that the state would, as he put it, “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”
Pinchot’s plan yielded to the state a monopoly on liquor sales, creating the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) and a state-run commercial business that still exist today. Besides contributing to state coffers and creating a workforce that was loyal to the system, Pinchot hoped that the PLCB would work against the liquor companies and keep consumers from over-indulging. They wanted to take the fun out of it — much like how Pennsylvania’s current medicinal marijuana regime treats that drug. Sure, they’d let you have your drink, but they’d do it in the most inconvenient way possible. (None of it worked: the drunks still got drunk and responsible drinkers were overtaxed and inconvenienced.)
READ MORE: Colton Grace + Dan Bartowiak: Colton Grace and Dan Bartkowiak: Marijuana won’t solve coronavirus budget woes – but will put health and safety at risk
Like many of the government agencies birthed during the progressive government expansion of the 1930s, the PLCB blurs lines of separation that were intended to keep American government from becoming too powerful. Having some legal regulations around alcohol sales is unobjectionable, though these could just as easily be enforced by local law enforcement without the need for an entirely separate bureaucracy. But the fact that the PLCB regulates booze and has a monopoly on the sale of much of it presents a particularly serious challenge to honest and efficient government in Pennsylvania.
Consumers in Pennsylvania flew straight up against the limitations of state-run alcohol sales as the pandemic hit — a time when, if ever, people needed a drink. Pennsylvanians, long accustomed to making surreptitious trips over the state line to save money or find an unavailable product, made brisk business for other states’ private liquor-sellers while Gov. Wolf shut down our state’s Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores. Fleeing Pennsylvanians were so commonplace — and theoretically, so contagious — that state governments from Delaware to Ohio barred us from entering to buy liquor. One store in Camden, NJ, had to close after being overrun by thirsty shoppers from the Keystone State.
It is reasonable to question whether stupefying the populace is better than getting them back to work — but perhaps the more interesting point is that Wolf is looking to make his state the first to end drug prohibition before it does alcohol prohibition.
So what did would-be drinkers in Pennsylvania have to resort to? An online ordering system that crashed or was sold out within minutes of using it. Pinchot’s “inconvenient and expensive” dream, come to life.
Another, more commonplace example of the PLCB’s ineptitude began with a simple question: how many liquor licenses are eligible to be auctioned off per county? Seems like a simple answer for the agency that issues liquor licenses, but it has proven surprisingly contentious. State Representative Frank Burns, a Cambria County Democrat, could not get a straight answer out of the PLCB and filed a Right to Know request. The agency is fighting the request in a case that, as Spotlight PA reported last month, could well go all the way to the state supreme court.
The problem is in the overlap between the PLCB’s roles as both regulator and market participant. A state regulator in any other field (or in any other state) would have no way to justify keeping a basic fact about their regulatory structure secret. The PLCB’s lawyers told Burns and, later, the courts, that the information was a “trade secret.”
READ MORE: Andrew Abramczyk: Coronavirus Crackdown Exposes Failing Government Liquor Monopoly
These lawyers are referring to a legitimate legal concept, only with one problem: governments don’t have trade secrets. In a normal state, the government does not even have a trade, as such. States regulate trade, but typically do not enter a trade themselves. Yet in Pennsylvania, we have a government that is buying and selling the product it is meant to be regulating. It is impossible to do both of those jobs correctly at the same time, and it will come as news to no one in the Commonwealth that the state is not doing a great job at either.
These lawyers are referring to a legitimate legal concept, only with one problem: governments don’t have trade secrets.
There have been some small liberalizations to alcohol sales in Pennsylvania of late. Since 2016, consumers have been able to purchase wine and beer at many supermarkets (though a separate cash register is required). Your beer distributor can sell you a six pack, not just a full case of beer. But the PLCB’s fight with Rep. Burns shows that even these small gains are balanced out by the bizarre incompetence as a regulatory agency. They are bad at regulation and terrible at business, the worst remaining legacy of Pennsylvania’s idiosyncratic Progressive Era.
Which brings us to today. The malfunctioning machinery of the PLCB limps along well into the 21st century as almost every other state in the union has moved beyond such measures. Now, the governor wants to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. But let’s slow down; as Calvin Coolidge said, “give the administration a chance to catch up with legislation.” Let Pennsylvania’s legislature fix one broken system before adding on another.
Legalizing recreational marijuana may be reasonable: after nearly fifty years, victory in the “War on Drugs” still proves elusive. Maybe now is the time to declare it over. But before doing so, Pennsylvania should stop fighting its century-old War on Alcohol. If Governor Wolf wants to bring money to state coffers, why not auction off private liquor store licenses along with the bar licenses that the PLCB is so secretive about?
Bring us into the modern era on booze, and then we can debate the logic of making other intoxicants legal and available.