Blogs & Comment

Can we vote out Prohibition too, please?

Washington State voters abolish government liquor stores in a referendum

(Photo: Getty)

Early returns suggest a significant majority of voters in the State of Washington have approved an initiative to privatize the state’s remaining government liquor stores. Washington, like most states, allows beer and wine to be sold in grocery and convenience stores, but it’s one of just eight states that still operates a chain of government-owned outlets selling spirits.

I wonder whether the vote was influenced by the recent airing on PBS of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition. The series expertly explained the 18th Amendment’s failure in terms of government overstepping the line where society allows it to intrude into individual freedoms, and as such proved a defining moment in the evolution of the American social contract. As the Washington initiative attests, that debate is alive and well today.

Unfortunately, there’s no such debate in Canada, where most provinces lack the democratic apparatus to stage such a citizen initiative anyway. Yet there’s little public conviction that alcohol sales need to be as tightly controlled as they are for social reasons. The biggest reason the provinces (with the exception of Alberta and Quebec, though they still control the wholesale trade) continue to monopolize liquor sales is economic: it’s a cash cow for governments.

Opponents of Initiative 1183 noted how almost all the US$23 million spent by supporters came from Costco, a Washington-based retailer. And you can bet unions representing workers at government liquor stores would raise fears of big business capitalizing on social decay if such a vote were to be held north of the border. But as Prohibition illustrated, we’ve been through this debate—in fact, we didn’t even enter into it in Canada. It’s about time we acted on our conclusions.