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A ‘miniature’ victory for Lindell on liquor sales

A display of mini liquor bottles for sale at a Kelly’s Liquors earlier this month. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe City Councilor Signe Lindell was handed a belated victory when the state Legislature recently passed a massive overhaul of New Mexico’s liquor regulations and the governor signed it into law.

Just before the final version of the bill was approved by the state Senate on March 9, an amendment was inserted banning the sale of 3-ounce liquor “miniatures” for off-site consumption. The tiny bottles will still be allowed at golf courses, hotels or other places where they can be consumed on site.

In 2015, Lindell faced a lot of blowback when she sponsored a city ordinance to ban liquor mini sales in Santa Fe. Lindell’s measure was put forth as a litter-control measure rather than an effort to prevent drunken driving.

While some liquor store owners said then that minis were as much a parking lot litter nuisance as a profit center, others said minis were a major part of their business. Then-City Councilor Ron Trujillo asked if City Hall was going to ban dogs next, considering the messes they leave behind.

Lindell also was mocked for focusing on liquor minis when a typical fast-food order produces a lot more potential litter.

In the end, the City Council banned liquor minis, but – as expected – a judge overturned the ordinance on grounds that the City Council had overstepped into legal territory governed by New Mexico’s state Liquor Control Act.

We always believed Lindell had the right idea, though. Her proposal may have been trying to use litter control as a way to get rid of a type of liquor packaging that seems to be designed expressly for easy consumption while on the road followed by easy disposal, through the car window, and which therefore is an encouragement to drinking and driving.

Young people in support of Lindell’s ban gathered a few mounds of mini bottles from Santa Fe streets as clear (plastic or glass) evidence of the littering problem. As we said at the time, yes, a bag of burgers and fries from your local burger joint produces a lot more trash and resultant litter if thrown on the road. But at least no one ever got drunk eating a Big Mac.

At the Legislature last month, there doesn’t seem to have been much debate over the fate of liquor minis.

Lawmakers were more focused on other parts of the liquor overhaul that also made it much cheaper for restaurants to obtain licenses to serve mixed drinks, allows home delivery of booze accompanied by food, and lifts the ban on sales of alcoholic beverages on Sundays before noon.

The anti-mini amendment that became part of the new liquor law was brought forth by Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez as an anti-DWI effort. She compared it to the ban two decades ago on liquor sales through drive-up windows.

Mark Rhodes, lobbyist for the New Mexico Packaged Liquor Association, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that most sellers don’t see losing liquor minis as having significant impact on their businesses, but that consumers who use the small bottles as a way to control drinking problems would be affected.

And Rhodes seemed to lend credence to both the anti-DWI and anti-littering arguments against minis.

Rhodes, the New Mexican reported, said a lot of operators are “not particularly upset” about the ban “because the cleanup of minis sometimes in parking lots is significant.”

“Whatever benefit a lot of licensees get from the sale may in part be offset by the cleanup because minis are natural for people to drink in their car” and throw out the window, he said.

The mini ban won’t solve New Mexico’s chronic DWI problem. And the liquor industry may well come up with a dodge to the mini ban by making slightly larger bottles, just beyond the 3-ounce size now sold, but banned come July.

But the mini ban is at least a clear public policy statement against liquor packaging that was always more or less a middle finger directed at anti-DWI efforts.

Maybe this is just a “miniature” step forward in New Mexico’s fight to stanch DWI. But it is a move in the right direction. Lindell deserves credit for being on this path before other policymakers in the state.