The Norman Transcript

January 9, 2014

Liquor by-the-drink was a success in Oklahoma


The Associated Press

NORMAN — In 1984, Oklahoma voters approved liquor-by-the drink — arguably the beginning of the state’s emergence into modern times and certainly the end of decades of hypocrisy.

Before liquor-by-the-drink, we had liquor-by-the-wink. To get a mixed drink, you had to belong to a private club and have your own personal, marked bottle on the premises. At least that was what the law said.

In practice, of course, things were very different. “Clubs” handed out membership cards at the door. Dusty sham bottles lined the back of bars, but who knew what drink came out of what bottle.

Enforcement was a joke. In Norman, University of Oklahoma undergraduates went into restaurants on Sunday evenings, when the dorm cafeterias were closed, to find that the hostesses wouldn’t serve light beer because the police enforced the city’s blue law, but they would gladly bring a martini. No one was enforcing the state’s alcohol laws.

Despite the state’s Bible Belt reputation, liquor was flowing freely in Oklahoma, especially in the cities. It just wasn’t getting regulated or taxed.

Liquor-by-the-drink changed all that.

Several times before, Oklahoma voters had rejected liquor-by-the-drink, but in 1984, things went the other way. State Question 563 passed with a little more than 51 percent of the vote.

Last week, Oklahoman reporter Jennifer Palmer took a look at the progress of liquor-by-the-drink in the state.

Only 26 of the state’s 77 counties remain “dry.” Two more counties, Choctaw and Johnston, will take up the issue early this year.

Since the expansion of the legal sale of mixed drinks to people over the age of 21, the horrors that liquor-by-the-drink opponents prophesied haven’t come true.

The number of traffic deaths and crashes went down after liquor-by-the-drink became law, a trend that started before the law and continued after it.

In 1982, the number of statewide traffic fatalities was 1,070. In 1986, it was 711. Traffic fatalities haven’t been within 200 of the 1982 level since the law changed, and there were 708 last year. The total number of crashes also was down in the same period.

Drunken driving arrests also went down immediately after the law changed, from 7,858 in 1982 to 5,632 in 1985.

A lot of factors are involved in all of those statistics, but the promised spike in drunken driving clearly didn’t materialize.

People drank before the law changed. They drank afterward. And some of them drove after drinking before and after the law changed. We don’t condone that. Drunken driving is foolish, dangerous and criminal.

Lliquor-by-the-drink wasn’t about encouraging the consumption of alcohol. It was about recognizing it, regulating it and taxing it.

And that is what happened. In Fiscal Year 1986, the state received $10 million in taxes from the sale of mixed drinks. Since then, the tax rate has gone up (from 10 percent to 13.5 percent) and so have receipts $44 million in Fiscal Year 2013.

Oklahoma was one of the last states to edge away from the failed social experiment that was Prohibition.

State voters made the right choice in 1984, and more and more counties are joining the post-21st Amendment world of legal cocktails in America.

— Tulsa World

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