Cash-Strapped Communities Weaken Opposition to Alcohol Sales

This little town was dry when Marian Steich was born here in 1925, and like most of East Texas it stayed dry — in law, if not always in fact — after Prohibition was repealed nationally eight years later.

Steich thought that would never change. For generations, it didn't.

But in a referendum last November, the 84-year-old, teetotaling, church-going great-grandmother helped make her community the first in Smith County to legalize the retail sale of alcoholic beverages.

Steich says people should have the right to decide what to drink and where to buy it. She also hopes alcohol can help Winona fill its storefronts and fix its roads. "I watched this town die," she says. "Now I'd like to see it grow."

Those ideas are dooming what's left of the prohibition movement and shrinking Dry America, a region from the Carolinas to the Plains where many places still ban sales of some or all types of alcohol.

At a time when many states are debating marijuana policies — 13 have decriminalized possession and 15 have medical marijuana programs — the fight in Dry America is over alcohol.

To Winona Mayor Rusty Smith, "it almost seems like we're behind the times." To Jim Mosher, a national alcohol policy analyst, it shows how deeply the issue of intoxicants divides America's cultures, faiths and regions.

Prohibition, created by a constitutional amendment that took effect in 1920, banned the sale, production and importation of alcoholic drink in the USA. After its repeal in 1933, states were free to regulate alcohol.

What emerged was a patchwork of state, county and local laws, with wets and drys fighting for each patch.

Today, one in nine counties is still dry. But drys are losing ground on all levels, from the state — since 2002, 14 states have ended bans on Sunday alcohol sales — to the very local. In April, a 19-block section of western Louisville (the M-107 precinct) voted 89 to 41 to go wet.

The number of Tennessee communities that allow sales of liquor by the drink (in bars and restaurants) has increased 56 percent since 2003. In the same period, 22 of Texas' 254 counties and more than 235 of its municipalities have gone wet (or "moist," a nebulous category in which beer and wine might be legal, but not liquor).

Even in Kansas — the state that produced the ax-wielding saloon-wrecker Carry Nation; that passed the first state prohibition law in 1881; and that did not repeal it until 1948 — 16 counties have gone wet since 2002.

Is this the end of the prohibition movement?

"It's moving in that direction," says Joe Godfrey of the pro-dry Alabama Council on Alcohol Problems. "Our numbers are growing fewer and fewer."

Weakening Opposition

The fall of Dry America has many causes. The recession has made governments desperate for tax revenue; national restaurant and supermarket chains are leery of opening where they can't sell alcohol; referendum law changes in states such as Texas and Alabama have made it easier for wet advocates to force local alcohol law elections.

Alabama already this year has had 16 municipal wet-dry referenda, most of them hard-fought. Winfield in May elected to stay dry by a margin of five votes out of 1,653 cast.

The religious opposition to alcohol is weakening, especially among young people, and even among evangelicals.

"Lots of churches aren't addressing the issue," Godfrey says. "They want to avoid controversy." Many preachers, he complains, have accepted the concept of moderate drinking.

There are health and social costs to going wet.

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