Ahhh, 1981. Pope John Paul II was shot, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the US Supreme Court, and the world discovered both the Violent Femmes and Depeche Mode. Ronald Reagan fired what seemed like all of the air traffic controllers. Paul McCartney’s stupid little band, Wings, broke up.
So it was mixed—kind of an up and down year. In New Mexico, the state’s Liquor Control Act was passed. Also a mixed bag. Obviously it’s a good idea for the state to set regulations—at least on some level—on the sale of the world’s most dominant and dangerous drug. But 28 years later, the law is so discombobulated, labyrinthine and disconnected from common sense that I am willing to bet a number of the legislators who participated in drafting the law were, themselves, drunk at the time.
“It’s a very complex act,” Bog Hagan, a spokesman for the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, says. “There are about 15 different kinds of licenses granted for the sale and distribution of liquor.”
We primarily encounter three types of liquor licenses: package liquor sales from stores, full liquor licenses at bars and restaurant licenses. But recently in Santa Fe, we’ve stumbled across a few more.
One may buy liquor on a train, for example, so long as you’ve purchased a ticket, although the train doesn’t have to actually go anywhere.
La Montañita Co-op members voted to allow its markets to pursue a special package license granted for the sale of beer and wine produced only in New Mexico (rumors as to why this license has yet to go into effect in Santa Fe range from our co-op’s proximity to a school to the board members refusing to be fingerprinted).
Finally, the Marble Tap Room that recently opened in the Santa Fe Arcade uses a neat trick that allows an entity with a brewer’s license to have up to two off-site locations.
Off-site licenses are granted to both brewers and vineyards. Beer brewers may have two and wine producers may have three. Why? Because the legislators who dreamed this up were probably drunk. Beer brewers may use their off-site locations to sell both packaged products and beer by the full pint glass (or less). Wine producers may sell packaged products and offer wee little tasting samples but may not sell wine by the glass. Why? Because the legislators who dreamed this up were probably drunk. This means it’s possible to use a brewer’s license to open up two beer bars with no other real restrictions, but a wine bar isn’t allowed.
Anything even resembling a wine bar has to take the route of a restaurant license. Under a restaurant license, beer and wine may be served, so long as it never tops 40 percent of the entity’s profits (the other 60 percent must come from food sales). Also, sensibly, beer and wine must be delivered to a table and may never be handed across a bar-like structure. If you’re sitting at the counter, waitstaff must walk around the counter and deliver it to you from the side you’re on, rather than passing it across. It is not necessary to order food with a purchase of beer or wine, but sales of alcohol must stop when food sales stop. There used to be a regulatory overlay that required food purchase as well, but it was repealed several years ago.
There are a set number of full liquor licenses in the state, which is why getting into the bar business is prohibitive. The most recent sale of a liquor license listed by NMRLD in Santa Fe was in the amount of $450,000. It’s not uncommon for licenses to be sold for $600,000. In 2007, a license in Albuquerque changed hands for $2 million.
These licenses, however, are transferable. Confining the number of licenses, while allowing for their transfer on the free market, has resulted in a thriving business in license brokerage from which the state profits not at all. Does a percentage of the profits from the lucrative transfer market go into treatment and prevention programs for alcohol abuse? Nope. And, increasingly, the limited number of full licenses is concentrated in the state’s population centers, which leaves rural areas to grapple with the remaining—and more restrictive—types of licensing.
In 2007, House Joint Memorial 79 called for the creation of a committee to review liquor licensing laws and acknowledged that the issue had not been revisited since the year Bob Marley died.
But nobody—not the NMRLD, its Alcohol and Gaming Division or Santa Fe’s legislative representatives—seems to know anything about the committee, such as who served on it or what it may or may not have recommended as changes. Of course, a “memorial” is the legislative act that most resembles pissing in the wind, so it’s not altogether surprising that nobody tackled a hot-button issue like alcohol, especially when a good ol’ boys network of brokers is making a killing on transferring licenses.
Nonetheless, it’s time for a simplified system, crafted by sober legislators. It doesn’t need to be buzzkill legislation—in fact it should free beer and wine service from the archaic restriction of full kitchens, and should allow wine producers equanimity with beer brewers. But it should also cap the back-alley dealing in licenses and channel the profits toward public benefit rather than private pockets.