Okla. Supreme Court Considers Wine In Groceries

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Allowing grocery stores in Oklahoma's largest counties to sell wine would create a new convenience for people who now must buy it at tightly regulated package liquor stores, an attorney for supporters of the proposal told the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Thursday.

Although wine is an alcoholic beverage, people perceive it differently than other forms of alcohol, including liquor and beer, Lee Slater, attorney for Oklahomans for Modern Laws, said during oral arguments.

"A lot of people like to have wine with their dinner. That's not the case with other types of alcoholic beverages," Slater said.

But the plan, Initiative Petition 396, is opposed by liquor retailers and organizations that believe making alcohol more easily available will increase the opportunity for abuse.

"We oppose it on the grounds of accessibility," said Jim Priest, attorney for Fighting Addiction Through Education and the Oklahoma Prevention Policy Alliance. Priest said the organizations do not advocate a return to Prohibition but believe that increasing the number of retail outlets will contribute to more abuse and underage drinking.

Attorney Jon Brightmire said proposed changes to the state Constitution would involve multiple subjects in violation of the single-subject rule that applies to constitutional amendments. The single-subject rule says that ballot initiatives can address just one thing, not several, to avoid misleading voters.

Brightmire also said the proposal violates the equal protection clause of the state and U.S. constitutions because it would treat similar entities in different and unfair ways.

Chief Justice Steven Taylor of McAlester said the state Constitution requires the state to tightly regulate all forms of alcohol.

"Wine is an alcoholic beverage. And it has the same addictive qualities," he said.

But Justice Noma Gurich of Oklahoma City said the state regulates various alcoholic beverages differently based on the percentage of alcohol. Beer that contains 3.2 percent alcohol is already sold in grocery stores; wine and higher-alcohol beer can only be sold in liquor stores.

"It's an embarrassing fiction," Taylor said.

Justices took the case under advisement and did not say when they will hand down a decision.

The petition seeks a statewide vote on one of the biggest changes to Oklahoma's liquor laws since Prohibition was repealed in 1959 and liquor-by-the-drink was allowed in bars and nightclubs on a county-option basis in 1984.

Oklahomans for Modern Laws must collect the signatures of 155,216 registered voters in order to get the issue on the November ballot.

Currently, the state Constitution restricts the sale of wine almost exclusively to licensed retail package liquor stores, although the state's more than 60 wineries are permitted to sell their own bottles in their tasting rooms.

The proposal would create a new wine license to permit the sale of wine by grocery stores, superstores, supermarkets and warehouse clubs that have at least 25,000 square feet of floor space. Convenience stores would be excluded.

Wine sales by grocery stores would be restricted to 15 Oklahoma counties whose populations are more than 50,000 and would have to be approved in advance in countywide votes.