Last week, Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation to allow Alabama municipalities within dry counties to continue selling alcohol. But why did the Alabama governor take this seemingly dated action?
Earlier this month the Alabama Supreme Court overturned a 2009 law that allowed for alcohol sales in dry county cities and towns. Bentley signed the new law shortly before the expiration of the court’s grace period.
According to the state’s high court, the 2009 law violated the Equal Protection Clause because an exception was written in the law not to allow municipalities in Blount, Clay and Randolph counties to participate. However, the whole concept of dry counties in Alabama begs the question, why is this still a thing?
The government’s involvement in the sale of alcohol has always been a peculiarity, especially in Alabama.
Alabama embraced prohibition in 1915, four years before the rest of the country did with the 18th Amendment. Then in 1933 with the 21st Amendment, prohibition ended. That led to the way alcohol is regulated within the state today, which is on a county-by-county basis.
According to an op-ed penned by historian and Jacksonville State University scholar Harvey Jackson during the 2012 election cycle for the Roanoke, Alabama’s Randolph Leader, this arrangement was due to the balance of power in the Alabama legislature, where rural legislators representing areas that still favored prohibition had an edge over legislators from urban areas favoring legal alcohol sales.
Over the years, the phenomena created an uneasy alliance between prohibition proponents and bootleggers profiting off the black market created by prohibition. As the population became more mobile, roads and highways improved and more and more people got automobiles, that black market dried up, and with it half of the push keeping these regulations in place.
Currently 25 counties in Alabama remain dry, although all — with exception of Clay County — have wet municipalities within their borders.
Are dry counties really any better off?
Of these 25 counties, there is nothing to suggest they’re better off economically with prohibition in place. In fact, they tend to be struggling in some cases economically with unemployment rates above the national unemployment rate of 5.5 percent according to data from the Alabama Department of Labor. That’s perhaps due to these counties being rural and lacking economic opportunities of the more populated counties. But there’s no clear competitive advantage.
As far keeping the roadways safer, it isn’t clear a dry county is any better off than a wet county. A 2009 University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety examined DUI data of 13 dry counties and 13 wet counties and determined there was no clear distinction between whether a county was wet or was dry. The study instead concluded demographic data should be considered, particularly the age of the population, where a concentration of a younger population could mean more of a likelihood of risky behavior.
The economic and safety argument are perhaps anecdotal and may not hold true universally. However, there is one dark element that tends to be more prevalent in dry counties everywhere and that is the manufacture and use of methamphetamine.
A University of Louisville study that analyzed Kentucky’s dry counties determined counties without alcohol have more meth lab seizures per capita than do the state’s wet counties.
According to the authors of the study, economists Jose Fernandez, Stephan Gohmann and Joshua Pinkston, alcohol bans increase the cost of obtaining alcohol, therefore making illegal drug market more competitive.
Mobile County is bordered by three dry counties – Washington County to the north and Greene and George counties, in Mississippi, to the west. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s meth lab registry, both Greene (10 labs) and George counties (33 labs) have had a disproportionate number meth labs decontaminated or demolished by local authorities based on their populations between 2004-2012. The DEA reported Mobile County discovered 38 meth labs in the same time period, but with a population 11 times that of Greene and George Counties combined.
The bottom line is it is difficult to regulate human behavior, especially when it comes to society’s desire for their intoxicant of choice. Our country’s failed attempt at prohibition last century is proof of this.
When the government attempts a ban, the law of unintended consequences often takes effect and you have an environment that is more prone for corruption, illegal drugs, etc. Or you have a cottage industry of county line liquor stores and barrooms, which would seemingly increase the possibility of drinking and driving.
While those who pushed for alcohol bans may have had honorable intentions at the time, this is a policy has outlived its usefulness. As far as Alabama is concerned, the prohibition on alcohol where it is still in effect will celebrate its 100-year anniversary.
What has it accomplished, other than ridicule from its wet neighbors?