Published: Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Private liquor sales to start June 1

By Jerry Cornfield
Herald writer
OLYMPIA — Easy access to booze nearly all hours every day is what many Washington lawmakers wanted to avoid when Prohibition ended in 1933.
So an alliance known as the “drys” banded together to put the state in charge of buying and selling spirits and setting the prices customers would pay.
That will end this week when the state exits the liquor business and the private sector moves in, the result of voters passing Initiative 1183 in November.
Starting Friday, bottles of vodka, bourbon, whiskey and more will populate the shelves of hundreds of supermarkets, a couple of dozen Costco stores and eventually a few massive liquor-only warehouse outlets.
As a few operational wrinkles get ironed out, excitement is building in the aisles of retailers like Safeway, where one can see bottles on shelves hidden behind black curtains like forbidden fruit.
“There’s a buzz. Customers are asking about it. There’s even been attempts by some to buy it,” said Sara Osborne, public and government affairs director for Safeway.
Under the law, hard liquor cannot be sold between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m., which leaves 20 hours a day in which it can -- far more than available now.
Though that means the curtains can come off when Friday arrives at the stroke of midnight, they won’t. Sales in the 170 Safeway stores won’t begin until 6 a.m., Osborne said.
Costco, whose lawyers wrote the initiative and whose dollars almost single-handedly financed the campaign, isn’t planning anything special for Friday.
Instead, when doors open customers will find about 70 different items on display in an area near where wine is sold in its 27 stores, said Joel Benoliel, the firm’s senior vice president and chief legal officer.
What privatization means for prices is unclear. Absent state control, retailers can push the bottom line up, down and all around as they see fit.
“It a big old mystery whether the customer will be paying more or less,” said Edik Saroyan of Everett, who bought a state-owned liquor store on Everett Mall Way. “We’ll just take it a step at a time and see what everybody else is doing.”
Smaller restaurants and retailers in rural areas may get pinched with higher prices, Guadnola predicted. Under the state-run system, a bottle of spirits cost the same to everyone regardless of location.
There’s a chance privatization won’t happen.
The state Supreme Court is considering whether the initiative is constitutional. A suit filed by opponents contends the ballot measure violates state rules requiring measures to address only one subject, because it includes a provision to set aside $10 million for public safety in addition to privatizing liquor sales.
Justices heard arguments in the case earlier this month and are expected to issue a decision before Friday.