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Beer and wine sales in grocery stores could go to Maryland voters

A bill sponsored in the House of Delegates by Del. Lily Qi and in the Senate by Sen. Cory McCray would allow voters to choose whether grocery stores could begin selling beer and wine. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The latest push to get wine and beer in Maryland grocery stores could involve putting the measure up to a vote in November. 

Del. Lily Qi, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Cory McCray, D-Baltimore, have filed HB506 and SB603, respectively, bills that would put a referendum to lift Maryland’s blanket ban on beer and wine in grocery stores, in the form of an amendment to the state’s constitution, on November’s ballot. 

Marylanders have been unable to purchase beer and wine in grocery stores since 1978, when a law was passed banning the sale of alcohol in supermarkets and chain stores, with a handful of exemptions. But several polls have shown that many of the state’s residents want that to change. In 2020, for example, a poll conducted by Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws indicated that more than two-thirds of the state’s residents are in favor of the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores. 

The duo of lawmakers previously worked together on a similar bill during the 2021 General Assembly session. Last year’s bill, which Qi withdrew after receiving an unfavorable vote in the House Alcoholic Beverages Subcommittee, would have allowed grocers who opened and operated stores in food deserts to sell beer and wine in order to incentivize them to open in higher-need areas. 

Although the bill had supporters, including the Maryland Retailers Association, which has advocated for supermarkets to be allowed to sell beer and wine for years, it was criticized for potentially taking business away from liquor stores and bringing more alcohol into poor communities.  

With the new iteration of the bill, which was heard in the House Economic Matters Committee on Monday, Qi and McCray hope to let the voters themselves have the ultimate say on the matter.  

“Let voters have a choice, just like (with) cannabis,” Qi said, referring to a bill currently making its way through the General Assembly that could put a referendum on legalizing recreational marijuana on the ballot this November. 

Qi said that leveraging the sale of wine and beer to persuade more grocers to operate in underserved areas is still a central goal of the legislation. However, the details of how that would work aren’t included in this bill. Those incentives, along with other regulations and policies related to the amendment, would have to be hashed out by the General Assembly and local liquor boards at a later date. If voters ended up approving the amendment, grocers will be able to get beer and wine licenses beginning on July 1, 2024, giving lawmakers just under two years to work out those details. 

The amendment does currently contain language that would require liquor boards to prioritize licenses for stores “located in geographic areas that have a demonstrated lack of affordable healthy food options.” 

The delegate hopes that this bill will be more popular among the county liquor boards than its previous iteration, as it gives them the freedom and flexibility to implement the new policy as they see fit.  

“Some of them are more conservative in terms of any changes and they don’t want the state to tell them what they can or cannot do. But this is a very enabling framework,” she said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t welcome that flexibility … we’re giving them more tools to work with.” 

Beyond her goal of bringing more grocery stores to the state’s food deserts, Qi said she simply considers it common sense legislation that would bring Maryland in line with the rest of the nation. Maryland is one of only four states in the United States that doesn’t allow the sale of beer, and one of only 11 that doesn’t allow the sale of wine, in supermarkets, according to the Food Industry Association Alcohol Fact Book Database. 

“This bill allows the voters to have a say in this matter that affects their everyday life,” she said.