Grocers push to put liquor sales on 2022 ballot


A majority of Oregonians support a proposal to sell liquor in grocery stores, but two previous ballot fights failed

A file photo of a liquor store. (Pamplin Media Group)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Oregon grocers are hoping the third time is the charm for a ballot initiative to allow for hard liquor sales in markets.

Lauren Johnson, owner of Newport Avenue Market in Bend and Oliver Lemon’s markets in Sisters and Terrebonne, is one of the sponsors of two possible ballot measures. Each would loosen the grip the state’s liquor store system has on the sale of most distilled spirits.

“Our measures allow local, independent, and chain grocers that have safely marketed and sold beer and wine for over 80 years to sell distilled spirits,” Johnson said in a statement announcing the initiatives.

A portion of sales would go toward addiction treatment services, Johnson said.

Markets can already sell beer and wine. But distilled spirits such as vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, tequila and brandy are tightly regulated by the state. More than 280 “retail agents” contract with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to sell distilled spirits at liquor stores in all 36 counties. The state funnels all liquor going to the stores through a central warehouse in the Portland area.

Oregon liquor stores sold just under $57 million in distilled spirits to consumers in May 2021, the latest month on record.

Distilleries are allowed limited direct sales of factory-sealed bottled from their premises.

Allowing sales of liquor in markets is favored by 65% of Oregon adults, according to a poll by DHM Research of Portland on behalf of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center.

Two initiatives planned

But grocers have filed initiatives twice since 2014 and failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Bill Caldwell with McKay’s Markets, a small chain of stores primarily in Southwest Oregon, is the co-sponsor of the ballot effort, along with Johnson.

Working with the Northwest Grocers Association, they have filed two versions of the measure. Initiative 31 would allow markets to sell spirits from small craft distilleries. Initiative 32 would let markets sell any kind of liquor.

Proponents must first gather 1,000 signatures to begin the process leading to the circulation of petitions, said Carla L. Axtman, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.

An initiative that changes state statutes requires 112,020 signatures to get on the ballot for the November 2022 general election.

Johnson and McKay are also working with the grocers association on the ballot drive. They plan to move ahead with just one of the two initiatives, but haven’t decided which as of yet.

If successful, Oregon would follow the example of California and Washington in allowing liquor sales in markets. The state has already chipped away at the liquor store monopoly, allowing some Walmart stores to sell their chain-branded hard liquor.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has opposed prior efforts to make hard liquor widely available. The move is also opposed by license holders of state liquor stores.

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