Pennsylvania’s awful alcohol laws turn rational citizens into criminals

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I am a criminal. I regularly break the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. At least once a month, I drive across the border to New Jersey, pull into the parking lot at Joe Canal’s Discount Liquor in Lawrenceville, go in the store and buy booze. I’ll get a half-dozen bottles of wine, a few 12-packs of beer, maybe get my growler filled from their taps, check the whiskey selection and then head home.

Sounds like a simple shopping expedition, right? But by Pennsylvania law, I’ve committed a crime under the Pennsylvania Liquor Code. I’ve bought booze outside of our “control state” and brought it home. As a friend puts it, I went “out of control.” I didn’t pay Pennsylvania taxes and, what may be worse in the cock-eyed view of the Commonwealth, I failed to support their wine and liquor monopoly stores.

That makes me is a smuggler—sort of. A smuggler generally brings goods across borders to avoid taxes or restrictions in order to make money on the resale of the goods. But I don’t resell; it’s all for my own consumption.

I’m not alone, either. I can see that every time I go to Canal’s; usually about one in three cars in the lot have Pennsylvania plates. It’s not even right on the border, it’s about 10 miles in. Roger Wilco, just over the bridge in Burlington, attracts even more Pennsylvanians. They go for the same reason I do: friendly, informed service like we don’t get at the Pennsylvania state stores; a full selection of wines, spirits, beers, ciders and even cheese and charcuterie; and of course, lower prices. While the prices at Canal’s aren’t all lower than at the state stores — and they’re not as low as in Delaware, where there’s no sales tax — whenever I buy at least six bottles of wine or spirits at Canal’s, I always save enough to pay for the trip.

We’re all driving miles out of our way because we can’t get what we want from the Stalinist relic that is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s (PLCB) monopoly retail system. With the tiny exception of direct sales by wineries and distilleries in the state, every bottle of wine and liquor purchased in the state must go through the PLCB’s system. It is slapped with a PCLB mark-up, taxes (excise and sales) and a “bottle fee.” It is then delivered to stores, where it is handled by the stone-faced minions who make the inherently pleasant chore of buying drinks a gray hammering guilt trip. Is it any wonder that thousands of us choose to cross the border every day?

You don’t have to take my word for it. The PLCB published a report on so-called “border bleed” back in 2011. They surveyed customers in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties; densely populated, generally more affluent and close to the borders. About half of the people surveyed admitted to buying out of state; 5 percent said that they bought exclusively out of state and another 8 percent made special trips to buy. Interestingly, the 5 percent were making small, regular purchases, while the 8 percent were making much larger purchases less often.

No estimates on the number of customers are given, but half the drinking population of this area would be hundreds of thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of people who don’t think twice about breaking an annoying, paternalistic law to save some green on wine. These are people who are criminalized by this 80-year-old relic of Repeal. The revenue neighboring states reap must be staggering.

Does anyone get caught or arrested? There are stories about how Pennsylvania State Police used to sit in liquor store parking lots in Maryland and Delaware, waiting for Pennsylvanians to load big hauls in the trunk. They’d follow them and nail them at the border: seizure, a fine for each bottle, a mark on your permanent record. Bad citizen.

Only…the police don’t do that anymore. There is, on rare occasion, a bust made when someone dials in a tip. There was one sting operation that caught a lawyer operating a buying club for wines that were unavailable in the state stores, but even he wasn’t a true smuggler. He was essentially covering his costs, not running it as a moneymaker. He just wanted to help others. It was a terrible black eye for the PLCB. And that, I suspect, is why arrests are not being made.

Philadelphia is the biggest city in Pennsylvania by far, and the Philly metro area is jammed right up against three borders with lenient liquor laws on the other side. Border bleed is an escape valve for the political pressures that would otherwise agitate for liquor privatization. In the end, we don’t really care if the state stores are all we have, because it is all too easy to pop over the border. If Philadelphia was in the center of the state, hours from shelves full of delectable old-vine zinfandels and amazing single malts not carried by the monopoly stores, we’d have risen up and trashed the PLCB years ago.

Until the valve pops, I’ll keep doing crimes, along with my neighbors. Congratulations, Pennsylvania Legislature: your inaction on this issue keeps us all on the wrong side of the law.


Guest blogger Lew Bryson is the author of “Tasting Whiskey,” published in 2014, and four books on the breweries of Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. 

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  • The “sweeping changes” (or “historic reform”, choose your hyperbole) to PA liquor law that took place this week won’t, in my opinion, change this much. For one thing, only wine sales were affected; liquor sales remain a total state monopoly. Wine sales are only ‘allowed’ in licensed premises: bars, restaurants, delis, and the 300-odd PA grocery stores that bought bar licenses. They are prohibited from selling for a price less than that in the State Stores, and they only get a small discount off the retail price.
    Mostly I hope the “sweeping reforms” will lead Pennsylvanians to realize just how badly the system treats them. Then they’ll call for real reform, and real changes. And then maybe we can buy booze at home.

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