Montana’s Alcohol Laws

Same topic, different views

By Tim Baldwin

The sale of alcohol in Montana has been heavily controlled for decades, going all the way back to prohibition days. The consequences have been that only people with extraordinary amounts of money can buy state licenses. But two bills are being proposed this session to give easier access to businesses wanting to serve alcohol.

First, that Montana so highly regulates the sale of alcohol undermines free market principles, based on supply and demand. The current quota system clearly limits suppliers, which forces customers to buy from those wealthy enough to buy a liquor license and favors the wealthy. On this very basic level, the current system needs amending.

Second, the current quota system forces customers to travel greater distances to return to their homes after having drank alcohol at bars or restaurants. This has the opposite effect of “public safety,” compared to allowing businesses to be more localized in the community.

Third, the bills proposed give greater local authority over issuing licenses to businesses. It will give more businesses access to opening restaurants, which will help create economic growth. Since the licenses have to stay in the local area, it will help perpetuate the benefits the licenses have in that community.

Opening the market, fostering creativity and competition, creating jobs and new businesses, giving consumers more and better options, improving public safety: these benefits are compelling arguments to pass these bills.


By Joe Carbonari

In 1947, Montana’s quota system for the control of liquor licenses went into effect. That was 69 years ago. What worked then to regulate the availability and consumption of alcohol works now largely in the restraint of our economy. It is time for a comprehensive review and revision. It appears that will happen.

To be sure, we do not have a shortage of alcohol in Montana. What we have is regulation that protects the past and hinders the future. We don’t limit the amount of alcohol available; we limit who can sell it, where and when we can get it, and how it is distributed. It works well for those already in the game, and, understandably, they are slow to embrace change. They deserve respect and fair treatment. They do not deserve protection from competition or the ability to restrain it.

Our towns, our cities, and the way we work and recreate within them have changed significantly. Because of the arcanities of our quota system, licenses are artificially overpriced and act as obstacles to the preservation, refurbishment, and redevelopment of our central cities. Kalispell is a good example.

Our efforts to bring additional life and vitality to our downtown core would benefit greatly from the addition of dining and entertainment choices that attract visitors and locals alike. A full license costs about $500,000, made available most often when an existing business fails. We are at least two years away from a fix. Unfortunately, it is the fix that we are in.

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