No big move to change Oklahoma's antiquated beer laws

Saturday, September 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Clark Kindrick would rather make the 45-minute drive to Arkansas for beer than drink the ``watery'' low-point brew sold in Oklahoma.

Kindrick, who lives in Porum, also picks up a six-pack in Texas whenever he crosses the Red River for his manufacturing business.

``I stock up,'' he said. ``It's a taste difference.''

Kindrick is among the Oklahomans who find state laws about beer antiquated, confusing and downright annoying. But in the heart of the Bible Belt, there isn't much of a movement to change them _ at least not an outspoken one.

``They're throwbacks to the first 50 years of Oklahoma's life as a state when we were under prohibition,'' Attorney General Drew Edmondson said.

``I would assume that there is not a constituency for change and there is a constituency to keep things the way they are.''

It's not just Oklahoma's faith-based roots that have kept prohibition-era laws on the books. Low-point beer distributors aren't interested in changing the laws because they would risk having to follow the more stringent ones imposed on liquor stores.

Oklahoma convenience and grocery stores cannot sell beer or wine coolers with more than 3.2 percent alcohol. Big-name domestic breweries, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, brew lower-point beer for the Sooner State and five others. Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Utah also sell 3.2 beer.

Liquor stores in Oklahoma can sell beer with higher alcohol content, but they have more rules to follow. For one, they have to sell beer at room temperature. Also, liquor stores are allowed to be open only from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

That means there's no such thing as a last-minute run to get brandy or wine for a Sunday night meal.

Some argue the beer sold in Oklahoma grocery stores isn't that much different from beer sold elsewhere.

Oklahoma low-point beer is 3.2 percent alcohol by weight and 4 percent alcohol by volume, according to an Anheuser-Busch spokesman. The company's regular brew is 4 percent alcohol by weight and 5 percent alcohol by volume, though actual percentages vary depending on the batch.

``You buy a six-pack of Bud in Texas, you buy a seven-pack in Oklahoma for the same punch,'' said Oliver Delaney, president of the Oklahoma Malt Beverage Association.

Delaney is among those who don't want the law to change, at least not right now.

If Oklahoma stopped selling low-point beer, distributors might have to follow the strict rules imposed on liquor stores. They wouldn't be able to sell beer on Sundays, for starters.

``We have one of the most idyllic situations in the United States,'' Delaney said. ``It looks like that's backward to some people, but 3.2 beer is in all 77 counties in the state. We have access to over 7,000 markets.''

Big-name domestic brewers are allowed to sell beer with more than 3.2 percent alcohol in Oklahoma liquor stores, but they don't because of the state's franchise law.

Low-point beer distributors in Oklahoma become franchisees of the big-name brewers and must follow their standards regarding expiration dates, promotions and advertising. But Oklahoma does not allow franchising for liquor stores _ if brewers bring their product into Oklahoma, they have to sell it to anyone.

Oklahoma liquor stores sold big-name domestic beer until the late 1970s, when the brewers pulled their strong beer out of the state.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, its constitution said it would be dry. The state remained dry until after prohibition, when residents voted in the mid-1930s to allow nonintoxicating beverages _ or beer with no more than 3.2 percent alcohol _ as a way to get around the constitutional ban.

In 1959, voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing beer in excess of 3.2 to be sold in liquor stores.

It wasn't until 1985 that Oklahoma allowed counties to vote on so-called liquor by the drink. Before that, residents had to bring their own bottle of liquor to private clubs, where they paid a membership fee.

To this day, 37 counties do not allow liquor by the drink.

Before 1985, law enforcement agents spent a lot of time cracking down on bartenders who poured liquor ``by the wink'' to people who didn't bring their own bottle.

The undercover work continues in 37 counties, said Tommy Marvell, assistant director of the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission.

The Durant Country Club was busted three years ago for selling liquor by the drink. Agents seized 125 liquor bottles during a raid.

Oklahoma changed the constitutional name of 3.2 beer from ``nonintoxicating'' to ``low-point'' in 1995, after the ABLE Commission reported that 70 percent of alcohol-related deaths and injuries were caused by drinking 3.2 beer. The same law also prohibited the sale of 3.2 beer between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Oklahoma isn't the only state with confusing beer laws.

In Texas, counties are allowed to vote wet or dry. In dry counties, there are no liquor stores and residents have to become card-holding members of clubs to drink in bars and restaurants.

Colorado laws are similar to Oklahoma's _ grocery stores cannot sell beer in excess of 3.2. But strong beers from Bud, Coors and Miller are available cold at liquor stores.

And in Utah, only low-point brew is sold in grocery and convenience stores. The state owns Utah's liquor stores, which don't sell Bud, Miller or Coors with regular alcohol content.

In some states, grocery stores aren't allowed to sell any alcohol.

Even if there isn't much discussion at the Capitol to change Oklahoma's beer laws, the topic is fodder for conversation at restaurants, bars and on the Internet.

Almost 200 people have signed an Internet petition, which isn't worth much legally, to bring all domestic beers back to Oklahoma liquor stores.

``It's time that Oklahoma took a step into the 1980s,'' wrote Nathan Roberts of Oklahoma City. ``We are a joke to the rest of the country.''

``I have to drive to Texas to get good beer,'' wrote Shelia Swindle of Woodward. ``Now that just plain sucks.''

In the Gazette, Oklahoma City's alternative weekly, this was the runner-up's answer in a recent contest for book titles about Oklahoma: ``Don't Come Here _ We have 3.2 Beer.''