Allowing for the sale of strong beer and wine in Oklahoma grocery stores will face tough resistance from the state's liquor industry and require a massive overhaul of statutes and changes to the Oklahoma Constitution, lawmakers learned on Monday.
During an inaugural meeting of the Joint Task Force on the Sale of Wine and Beer in Grocery Stores, representatives of liquor store owners, wholesalers and distributors all made clear their opposition to any change in the status quo.
Some liquor store owners will be required to cut staff or shut down entirely, while nearly all will be forced to reduce the number of products they offer for sale, said J.P. Richard, the owner of Cache Road Liquor and Wine in Lawton and the president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma.
Overhauling the state's laws is "wrongheaded and not supported by any evidence offered by its supporters," Richard said.
Under current Oklahoma law, beer in excess of 3.2 percent alcohol and wine can only be sold in liquor stores, which are restricted to single owners and must follow strict regulations on hours of operation. Package stores also cannot sell additional products, like ice or non-alcoholic beverages.
So-called "non-intoxicating beer" with less than 3.2 percent alcohol may be sold in grocery and convenience stores.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, initially unveiled a bill last session to send the issue to a vote of the people, but he instead opted to establish a task force after facing bitter opposition from the liquor lobby.
Because many of the state's alcohol laws are in the Oklahoma Constitution, any proposal to allow the sale of wine and strong beer in liquor stores would require a vote of the people, and Jolley acknowledged such a change will be a difficult challenge.
"Whether people at the Capitol support allowing people to vote on whether not they would like to have changes, I think is the crux of the issue," Jolley said. "Do we want people to have that option to vote and express their opinion, or not. I'm not sure where we'll go."
Jeff Reasor, a third-generation Oklahoma grocer whose father established Reasor's Foods in Tahlequah, said a loose-knit coalition of grocery store owners and chambers of commerce are pushing for the change, but he said he doubts if most of the state's 600 grocery stores would sell wine and strong beer if given the opportunity.
Reasor said he believes the predictions of doom and gloom for liquor store owners if the law were to pass are overblown.
"I'd be foolish to sit here and try to tell you that some of the poorer operators aren't going to go away. But is that not competition?" he asked the task force. "Your better, good operators ... are going to survive."
Lawmakers also heard concerns from Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, who said numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of alcohol outlets and the increase in medical emergencies, car accidents, crime and violence.
"This isn't new news," White said. "A 1995 study found that for every additional outlet, you can expect to see an increase of about 3.4 assaults per year directly associated with every additional outlet added in the state.
"There is clearly a correlation related to access and what we're going to deal with in terms of our criminal justice system."
Jolley acknowledged those concerns and said prevention of youth access to alcohol must be taken into consideration, but he stressed those concerns must be balanced with the need for a free-market economy and suggested the current regulatory structure amounts to protectionism for liquor store owners.
"I believe that we need to be free market and be consistent on a free market. But ... we're not selling T-shirts," Jolley said. "These are products, when abused and misused, are highly dangerous. So, I think we need to make sure we're not doing anything that leads to abuse, but also respects individual freedoms to be adults."
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy