Liquor Prohibition Ending in Parts of the South

Eighty years after Congress repealed prohibition, some cities in Mississippi have decided to permit the sale of hard alcohol.
by | March 26, 2013
 

Eighty years after Congress repealed prohibition, some cities in Mississippi have decided to permit the sale of hard alcohol.

Of the 82 counties in the state, 34 are dry (represented as yellow in the map below) and four are split half and half. But the legislature last year amended state law to allow for cities in dry counties to lift their liquor bans.

The state law applies to spirits and wines with an alcoholic content above 5 percent.

In March, the city of New Albany, with a population barely over 8,000, became the third municipality to go wet in a dry county.

A growing number of localities across the South have loosened their alcohol laws in the last decade, said Ben Jenkins, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That trend also applies to loosening prohibitions on selling alcohol on Sundays and whiskey tastings at restaurants, bars and package stores, he said.

Between 2002 and 2012, Kentucky held 113 local elections in cities, counties and precincts that removed alcohol bans, according to the Spirits Council. Since 2004, 491 localities in Texas have done the same.

Some states still have dozens of dry counties, such as North Carolina (37) and Kansas (32). A tally by the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association in 2011 found 380 dry counties in 18 states. But reporting by USA Today in 2010 showed that the number of dry counties is dwindling even in places that were once the bedrock of prohibition.

Local governments in the South are choosing to lift alcohol bans because it generates new revenue without raising taxes, Jenkins said.

As per Mississippi’s 2012 law, not just any city can go wet -- only county seats and cities with a population of 5,000 or more. At least 20 percent of registered voters must sign a petition asking for an election. Since December 2012, two other Mississippi cities -- Corinth and Senatobia -- have lifted their liquor bans. One city, Ashland, voted against a liquor sales proposition.

New Albany Mayor Tim Kent, who did not take a position on allowing hard liquor sales in his town, said he expects to see population growth as a result of the new law. In the past, some restaurants wouldn’t consider moving to his city with the liquor ban in effect, he said.

“It’s going to be an increase in revenue because of the [sales] taxes associated with it,” said John Young, a real estate developer who advocated for bringing whiskey into town in hopes of attracting new business. He owns property along U.S. Highway 78 and says he would like to sell land to motels that operate restaurants with full bars.

Mississippi state Rep. Margaret Rogers, whose district includes New Albany, opposed the recent change to state law. People who disagree with the sale of hard alcohol see it as a moral issue, Rogers said. Churches were a driving force behind defeating similar countywide votes to allow hard alcohol in 2008 and 2011. In the past, rural parts of Union County -- led by church groups -- outweighed strong support in the city itself.

Alan Cousar, a used car salesman in New Albany, organized fellow members of the First Baptist Church to hand out flyers and knock on neighbors’ doors in opposition to the liquor proposal. He said he worries about upticks in alcoholism and drunk driving in his city, but his bigger concern is a moral one. "The Bible teaches against it," he said, referencing an excerpt in the King James edition:  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise."

Still, other community leaders say that allowing alcohol sales is beneficial to the local economy -- and the dry towns may not have been all that dry to begin with. Senatobia, where voters in January approved beer, wine and liquor sales by nearly a three-to-one ratio, had been a dry spot surrounded by five wet counties. Prior to the January vote, says Mayor Alan Callicott, residents would drive to other jurisdictions to buy alcohol; the mayor recalls seeing the occasional discarded beer can on the side of the road. “We were not really a utopia where there was no drinking.” With the ban lifted, Senatobia residents might spend their money at local retail stores, he said. “From an economic development standpoint, we wanted to be competitive with our neighbors.”

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