Colorado beer bill would regulate sales, public consumption in parks before 3.2 beer goes away

If you like beer, this bill’s for you.

The General Assembly is spending its final days debating new regulations that would affect where you can drink and buy beer in Colorado.

The effort is a backwash from the “beer wars” at the end of the 2016 legislative session that produced the most substantial rewrite of the state’s alcohol laws since Prohibition.

For decades now, grocery and convenience stores have sold only low-alcohol “3.2 beer” – making full-strength beer, wine and spirits the sole domain of liquor stores. But in January, the law will allow more than 1,500 grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer.

The massive shift still upsets liquor store owners who face major sales losses, and it concerns lawmakers who worry about the proliferation of alcohol. So once again, the legislature is rushing to strike a deal in the session’s waning hours.

“We wanted to make sure this transition happened in a safe manner,” said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, a bill sponsor who spent months negotiating the final language.

The measure passed the Republican-led state Senate on a 24-11 vote this week and now heads to the House, where the Democratic leadership intends to make changes that would force a compromise before adjournment next Wednesday.

“Whether this bill has the exact right combination of things, or whether it’s going to get through in an unadulterated way remains to be seen,” said House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder. “There’s some stuff that more palatable and less palatable.”

Here’s a look at five major questions the legislation addresses and what the law would mean for consumers in Colorado:

Can you drink beer in state and local parks?

In certain state and local parks, you can drink only 3.2 beer. So what happens when the low-alcohol beers disappear after full-strength brews crowd them out.

Well, it’s not entirely clear. The state’s Liquor Enforcement Division suggests that the rules allowing public consumption of 3.2 beer could automatically convert to cover full-strength beer, unless prohibited by other rules.

But the city of Denver disagrees. A legal analysis from the city’s attorneys suggests that the reclassification of all beer as “malt liquor” in the 2016 legislation makes public consumption illegal under the Colorado Liquor Code.

To resolve the issue, the new legislation – Senate Bill 243 – would give state parks officials and local governments the power to authorize beer consumption. Denver seems inclined to allow beer drinking in parks, but if legislation doesn’t pass this session, no beer would be allowed starting in January.

Who can sell beer at grocery and convenience stores?

One of the most contentious issues is the question about age restrictions on who can sell beer. To put grocery and convenience stores on par with liquor stores, the new legislation would require employees to be at least 21 years old to sell and handle beer.

This means an 18-year-old employee could not stock the beer aisle or help carry groceries to the parking lot if the purchase included alcohol. And it prompted critics to speculate that it would cost employees ages 18-20 their jobs, but the bill’s supporters dismissed the suggestion as a “knee-jerk reaction.”

Can people get a six-pack delivered to their door?

The legislation would remove current prohibitions and allow grocery and convenience stores to deliver beer to your door, akin to liquor stores.

But it comes with major restrictions for all retailers. The delivery would need to take place in a vehicle owned or leased by the store. It would need to be made by a store employee who is 21 years or older, and an identification check would be required.

This creates a problem for grocery stores — including Whole Foods Market, Safeway and King Soopers — that use Instacart to deliver groceries because the law would not allow contractors to do the work.

In addition, the delivery purchases cannot exceed half of the retailer’s total alcohol sales, and grocery and convenience stores must maintain a minimum 20 percent of sales from food.

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