Controlling Utah liquor laws

LDS culture is the driving force behind state rules

Published: Sunday, Oct. 28 2001 12:00 a.m. MDT

When Utah approved the 21st Amendment on Dec. 8, 1933, Americans from coast to coast had their radios tuned to the state's Repeal Convention as it took its historic deciding vote. Since that night, the nation's attention has not swayed from how Utah handles alcohol laws, albeit for different reasons.

Despite obscure or restrictive laws in practically every state, Utah laws attract far more attention. While some of that attention can be attributed to visitors confused by the state's laws and to heightened interest in the state because of the Olympics, Utah is not the only strict state with high tourist revenue, nor the first Olympic host with confusing liquor laws.

But one thing makes Utah's approach to alcohol control stand out — the motivation behind it.

"Utah is still the only state where the primary purpose is control," said Earl Dorius, Utah Alcohol Beverage Commission spokesman. "The other control states are about revenue."

So what, exactly, are Utah's liquor laws? Do they work, and if they do, why do they perpetually draw complaints from residents and visitors? What does Utah do differently from other states, especially those that surround the state and compete with Utah for tourist dollars?

The driving force

"Utah is a special place," says Dorothy Dalquist, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue. "You have your own way of dealing with whatever issues there are."

Colorado takes a narrower focus, Dalquist says. That state directs its enforcement efforts on keeping drinks away from minors or habitual drunkards, whereas Utah makes it much more difficult to simply find a drink.

What sets Utah apart? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

While many liquor laws have some religious basis — for example, the heavy Baptist presence is often cited as the reason for dry counties in the Deep South — they cannot be as easily pinned on one dominating cultural presence as the Utah laws can be attributed to the LDS presence.

"The philosophy of the state, as it relates to liquor, is driven by the Mormon Church," Dorius said.

The most telling example of that is the private-club law, he said, which the LDS Church presented after a liquor-by-the-drink referendum failed in 1969. Realizing that non-Mormons needed some way to get mixed drinks, the church pushed the idea of nonprofit private clubs.

Ideally, the private clubs would not make any money on alcohol sales. Because clubs cannot charge more for alcohol than it costs them, the state would remain the only beneficiary of alcohol revenue.

That law has failed, as evidenced by the number of club owners driving Cadillacs, Dorius said. Not that the clubs make any money on alcohol sales; instead, they make money on the nonalcoholic mixers, ice or glasses, as well as the rent paid to the management company that is usually run by the same people who manage the nonprofit club.

"Basically, you drain the profits from the nonprofit," Dorius said. "(The private-club law) doesn't make any sense."

Members only

No other state has a private-club system comparable to Utah, although many other states have private clubs. Texas, for example, allows drinking in dry counties at private clubs, and Iowa allows gambling in private clubs. However, those are actually private, formed by exclusive groups such as the Elks or Eagles. To form a private club in other states usually requires a group with a common goal besides drinking. They are nonprofits, and the attractions usually include cheap liquor prices because state taxes are avoided. Members of Texas clubs, in fact, can buy their bar liquor, mixers and barware as a group instead of paying for each drink separately.

"This is the one area where we appear to be different," Dorius said. "Other states have (private clubs), but they're for different purposes."

According to Utah law, any place that serves mixed drinks without food must be a private club. Any person who wants a drink either has to purchase an annual membership of at least $12 or a two-week membership that costs $5. A person can also be sponsored by a member who they supposedly know, although that caveat if often ignored by clubs and members.

The law can intimidate visitors, although DABC Director Kenneth Wynn said that if servers would simply explain the law instead of complain about it, it would save them time and not sour people about Utah.

"The servers are the worst public relations," he said.

Navigating the law

Not that Utah is an oddity among neighboring states. Liquor laws are a diverse bunch in the West, where alcohol control ranges from the wide-open atmosphere of Nevada to the dry counties in Idaho and Arizona. Both Idaho and Colorado prohibit liquor-store sales on Sunday, and Idaho also closes its bars on election days. Beer sold in Colorado grocery stores cannot be more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, while Wyoming, despite its liberal reputation, makes grocery stores sell all alcohol from a separate liquor-store area.

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