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Idaho has a long and sometimes complicated relationship with alcohol. In this series, we explore how the alcohol industry has evolved over the past century and what it may look like in the years to come.

Distilled: A History Of Idaho's Alcohol Laws

Idaho State Historical Society, 72-172-81
A bar in Nampa in 1926. The man in the foreground, seated with cards in hand, is Harvey Moore.

Jeff Anderson, the Director of the Idaho State Liquor Division sums up this story in one short sentence:

“It’s just terribly complicated and the beverage alcohol laws have been kind of kluged together over decades,” Anderson says.

He’s talking about the patchwork of laws that cover alcohol in Idaho, many of which stem from 1935. To really understand Idaho’s laws, we have to go back in time.

“So late 19th, early 20th century, there was a lot of abuse of beverage alcohol,” says Anderson.

In the 1880s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union settled in Lewiston and Boise. By the turn of the century, the Anti-Saloon League was also advocating for temperance. Sarah Phillips a curator at the Idaho Historical Museum, says many of the members came together and found a community.

“These were evangelical Christians a lot of times. It felt good for them to find a group of people who supported their morals and beliefs,” says Phillips.

The Anti-Saloon League got the Sabbath Law passed in Idaho in 1907, which prohibited alcohol sales on Sunday. A few years later, Moses Alexander, Idaho’s first Jewish governor, ran on a prohibition platform and won. He supported a constitutional amendment outlawing all alcohol sales in Idaho and it passed in 1917.

Credit Idaho State Historical Society, image 60-114-9
Idaho Governor Moses Alexander signs prohibition into law in Idaho.

“It caught on like wildfire. It really did. It was a slow burn at first but when it really caught on, people voted in droves for it. Prohibition in Idaho passed by 71 percent,” says Phillips.

Idaho’s own form of prohibition kicked in three years before the entire country went dry. And Idaho’s reasoning was much the same as the rest of the nation.

“They felt that would ensure morals, it would ensure people’s prosperity, family life would be better. All of a sudden all of these problems that we were having were all going to disappear if people would just put down the drink,” Phillips says.

Credit Idaho State Historical Society, image 60-114-12
The Women Christian Temperance Union from 1915.

But over the next 13 years, attitudes changed. Bootlegging, cultural shifts, the Depression and taxing booze convinced the country to repeal prohibition in 1933. Idaho repealed prohibition, somewhat reluctantly.

For the most part, laws passed in Idaho in 1935 haven’t changed much. For beer and wine, the wholesale and retail functions are in the private sector. And Anderson says for distilled spirits, the state retained control over the importation, distribution and retail sale of liquor.

“And then counties can set restrictions on those things as well. For example, if you go into Eastern Idaho, you’ll find a county that does not offer liquor by the drink anywhere. And that’s again, up to the sensibility of their citizens,” says Anderson.

That’s Madison County. Anderson says those laws have a lot to do with the character of Idaho.

"It’s partly societal and cultural. We are a little more conservative, I think it would not be untrue to say the cultural makeup of our state has something to do with that,” Anderson says.

A lot of Idaho’s laws have to do with access to alcohol, like when you can buy booze. For law enforcement, it’s more about public safety than morality.

“It is a legal drug that causes billions of dollars’ worth of damage across this country. That’s a lot of money. Lost work, lost revenue, death in the families,” says Lieutenant Sam Ketchum with the Idaho State Police Alcohol Beverage Control.

ABC, as it’s known, enforces the alcohol laws in the state. Ketchum says a lot of those 80-year-old laws have never been updated. And businesses are challenging those laws as they get more creative about what they sell - like ice cream.

Credit Idaho State Historical Society, image 60-114-7
The Women Christian Temperance Union office.

“At no time did prohibition come along and imagine that we we’re going to have an ice cream shop that mixed their ice cream with beer, wine and liquor. So is that a food product, is that an alcohol product, do we license them, do we not license them? None of that’s ever covered in law,” says Ketchum.

While small businesses try to jump through Idaho’s patchwork alcohol laws to make a buck, there’s another financial aspect to liquor in Idaho: Alcohol sales have grown more than $74 million in eight years. State forecasts predict it’ll generate close to one billion dollars over the next decade.

Jeff Anderson says that money funds state and local governments and substance abuse treatment, among other programs.

“I see the benefits it brings to small communities through the money that goes back to them. And if there’s $925 million that’s coming back to our beneficiaries over the next decade, and we remove the system and dismantle it, what happens to that $925 million dollars? That’s the big question,” says Anderson.

Anderson and Ketchum agree that it’s up to lawmakers to make changes to alcohol laws, if prompted by businesses or citizens. But just how much change is likely, in a conservative state, is hard to predict.

This story is part of the KBSX news series, "Distilled."

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life!). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.

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