Bottles of wine at Putnam Super Plaza Liquors in East Hartford (Christine Stuart/CTNewsJunkie)
TERRY COWGILL

In many ways, Connecticut seems like a forward-thinking progressive state. For better or worse, we protect abortion rights, we place a premium on environmental stewardship and preserving open spaces, we believe in taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves, we believe in equality of opportunity and we have progressive income tax rates.

But when it comes to mind-altering substances, we are skittish about change and remarkably protective of the status quo. To wit: the hue and cry over two recent proposals that should be no-brainers.

As you might expect, a recent effort to enact modest reform in Connecticut’s backward liquor industry has met with fierce opposition from package store owners. Many of them seem to think that a bill pending in the General Assembly to allow grocery stores to sell wine would be devastating to liquor stores, if not put them out of business altogether.

That’s what Michael Andreo of Putnam Plaza Super Liquors in East Hartford told my editor, Christine Stuart. “It’s like playing a basketball game and someone changes the rules in the middle of the game,” Andreo told CTNewsJunkie.

Well, not really. Rule changes typically occur in basketball’s off-season. The problem with the liquor industry – and the economy in general – is that there is no off-season. So if the rules need to change, there is no perfect time to change them. That complication, however, is hardly a good reason to maintain the status quo.

Hey Connecticut progressives, you’ve heard of social justice, economic justice, environmental justice? Well, meet liquor justice. Connecticut has the most oppressive and anti-competitive laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol in the country. The antiquated laws, some of which date back to Prohibition, punish the consumer in the name of protecting an entire class of retailers from meaningful competition. As former Gov. Dannel Malloy can tell you, legislative attempts to eliminate minimum pricing and move toward a free market have mostly proved fruitless.

With the exception of one year in New Hampshire, I’ve lived in Connecticut since 1984. As far back as I can remember, Connecticut has always allowed the sale of beer in grocery stores. Yet somehow, the 250-300 store owners who belong to the Connecticut Package Store Association have survived and continued to thrive even after Sunday sales were finally permitted against their wishes eight years ago. Indeed, during the pandemic, liquor store owners nationwide have seen estimated increases in sales of 30-40%.

Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, which represents the grocers, wrote in CTNewsJunkie that from 2009-2012, in 22 of the 34 states and the District of Columbia that allowed grocers to sell wine, the number of liquor stores actually increased. And in most of the 12 states in which the number of liquor stores declined, the number of food stores did, too, suggesting that broader trends are at work.

Permit me to illustrate the absurdity of the CPSA’s position on the issue. I’m in the newspaper business. Imagine for a moment that 20 years ago, newspaper lobbyists had argued for a ban on Craig’s List because the online advertiser was taking 90% of the classified ad business that was rightly ours. Imagine that we had argued against the operation of social media companies and search engines such as Google because they would gobble up the lion’s share of online revenues. We would be laughed right out of the Capitol. Lawmakers would have rightly told us to innovate or face the consequences.

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Click above to vote on HB 6101: AN ACT CONCERNING VARIOUS ISSUES RELATED TO THE LIQUOR CONTROL ACT

I’d go a step farther and let grocery stores sell hard liquor as well. Massachusetts allows it under certain conditions. Where I work in Great Barrington, Mass., the Big Y has a large full-service Table & Vine package store inside the supermarket. Somehow, the half-dozen other liquor stores in town have managed to stay in business, even as three recreational marijuana stores have opened. One package store in town has even started a delivery service.

Recreational Cannabis

Speaking of legalizing recreational marijuana, opposition to it is typically rooted in the idea that consumption will increase, especially among teens. The research on that is largely inconclusive. Besides, the buying age in states that have legalized it is 21, so it will still be just as illegal for young people as it always was.

One could argue that with adult-use legalization, it will be easier for teens to obtain weed from grown-ups. Not according to my own kids, who told me weed was widely available at their high school in the Northwest Corner. Everyone knew who was selling. If my kids wanted it, all they had to do was scrounge up some cash, meet the supplier in the school bathroom or in a parking lot and the deal was quickly consummated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive enough to believe that marijuana is a harmless drug, especially when it comes to young people. I am, however, convinced that it’s less harmful than alcohol, and no one is arguing that we should put the genie back in the bottle by retreating to Prohibition.

I commend Gov. Ned Lamont for putting forward a proposal for legalizing adult-use cannabis, not because I want everyone to get stoned or because I want to myself. Like hundreds of thousands of my fellow Connecticut residents, I can easily travel to the Bay State if I want to.

And that is precisely the point. We can take a stand and proclaim our virtue in drawing the line. But all that’ll do is drive Nutmeggers to Massachusetts and Maine, where retail operations are thriving. Soon tokers will be able to travel to Rhode Island, New York and Vermont – all of which have proposals on the table that will likely become law in the next couple of years. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the revenue in Connecticut and our cannabis travelers off the highways heading out-of-state?

Both proposals – allowing grocery stores to sell wine and legalizing recreational cannabis – will bring much-needed revenue to the state and its municipalities. Cannabis sales alone would bring in about $1 billion within the first five years, according to respected UConn economist Fred Carstensen, who has studied the subject. If you’re a conservative who insists we don’t need new revenues but should instead cut spending, then tell me exactly what you would cut and by how much. I’m guessing there will be a brief silence …

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.