By Henry Kuczynski
Boston University Statehouse Program
Voters will have the opportunity on Nov. 8 to support or oppose changes to state alcohol retail licensing, fining and operations, changes proponents argue will address issues related to consumer convenience and safety.
Question 3, if approved by voters, would increase the number of stores in Massachusetts where alcohol can be purchased. It would also change the purchasing process to better prevent sales to minors while updating fines for stores that commit infractions.
In Massachusetts, retailers require a license to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption. Under current state law, retailers are limited to nine licenses, regardless of how many locations they have. Question 3 proposes an incremental increase, raising the license limit from nine to 18 by 2031.
Question 3 was co-drafted by Rob Mellion, the executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, which represents the interests of local independent liquor stores. Mellion said the ballot question was drafted “defensively” due to the threat of losing vital business to major chain stores looking to expand.
In 2020, Cumberland Farms, a regional convenience store chain, filed a ballot question that would effectively remove the license cap and allow the company to sell alcohol at more of its 206 Massachusetts locations. It dropped the question because of the pandemic.
This was the third time in Massachusetts history that a major chain had attempted to expand its alcohol sales. A similar effort in 2006 was unsuccessful, but in 2011, the license limit was raised from three to nine. With more options available to consumers, liquor stores lost vital business, resulting in many selling off licenses and closing their doors.
For Mellion, Question 3 represents a “compromise” between liquor stores and major chains. The major chains are allowed to expand, but that expansion is controlled. This would preserve at least some business for liquor stores that would otherwise become obsolete.
“Either we did this, or we were facing extinction,” Mellion said.
Ben Weiner, the owner of Sav-Mor Liquors in Somerville and a supporter of Question 3, agreed that “compromise” was the right choice, given the major chains’ attempts to “exponentially increase” the license limits.
“You have hundreds and hundreds of independently owned liquor stores that are willing to lose business, but understand what the alternative is,” Weiner said.
Because Question 3 would lead to increased accessibility to alcohol, Mellion – who oversees a training and certification course for alcohol retailers – included measures that would improve public safety by updating existing regulations for the sale of alcohol.
In Massachusetts, alcohol, despite being a regulated product, can still be purchased at self-checkout stations. All other regulated products, including cigarettes and marijuana, must be purchased at a register.
MassPack has banned the use of self-checkout in liquor stores, but major chains have resisted. Question 3 would prohibit self-checkout of alcohol at all licensed retailers, requiring sales to be conducted face-to-face with customers, a change Mellion believes is long overdue.
“Why would you think that you should be able to self-checkout a regulated product like alcohol, that when over-consumed can kill somebody,” Mellion said. “There’s no good reason.”
According to Mellion, a self-checkout system does not prevent sales to minors, adults obtaining alcohol for minors, or intoxicated individuals. He said preventing these sales requires “a human being” to be present.
Weiner agreed, adding that in liquor stores like his, employees receive training from MassPack on how to spot fake identification or determine when a customer is too intoxicated to be served.
“This is not of secondary importance to us,” Weiner said. “We take any violation very seriously and do everything we can to avoid it.”
Question 3 would also change the way fines are calculated when illegal sales, such as to a minor, take place. For the first time since the system was established in the 1970s, fines would be based on a retailer’s total sales.
In the 1970s, alcohol was only sold in liquor stores. If an illegal sale took place, a retailer faced a suspension of their license, something that could be avoided by paying a fine. But to make that a significant deterrent, it was based on the retailer’s total alcohol sales.
Today, fines are still based on total alcohol sales. However, the retail landscape has changed significantly over the years, and alcohol sales are no longer limited to liquor stores.
Major convenience and grocery store chains now sell alcohol, but also many other products. But because fines are still based on total alcohol sales, it is a relatively small piece of the overall business.
According to Mellion, this makes the fine less of a reliable deterrent. He believes the law needs to be updated to ensure these major chains abide by the same standards that liquor stores do when conducting business.
“The whole point was that the penalty was always intended to be punitive, not a slap on the wrist,” Mellion said.
Damien Powell, a Massachusetts attorney who co-drafted Question 3 with Mellion, hopes changing how fines are calculated will result in increased vigilance on the part of retailers and reduce the number of sales that are made to underage people.
Mellion agreed, adding that this change would incentivize retailers to hire and properly train more staff to conduct face-to-face transactions.
“You work hard not to sell to a minor, guess what? You probably won’t,” Mellion said. “This is about responsibly selling alcohol.”
In a written statement, Cumberland Farms said it doesn’t officially support or oppose Question 3, adding that the ballot question “simply doesn’t address the archaic prohibition-era restrictions that prevent the vast majority of their Massachusetts stores from selling alcohol.”
Total Wine & More, an alcohol retailer with 240 locations in 27 states including Massachusetts, recently came out in opposition to Question 3. In an email to The Boston Globe, Total Wine Vice President Edward Cooper referred to the ballot question as “protectionism,” and that the initiative would hurt the “free market.”
Weiner disagreed, referring to Question 3 as a “true compromise.”
“The people that are presenting it are willing to acknowledge the public’s desire for convenience, but we’re also providing safety,” Weiner said.