Why is the Post Office Partying Like It’s 1921?

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If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything — besides vaccines being awesome — it’s that having everything delivered to our doors is way easier than constantly running to a store. Need a new laptop? Skip the Apple Store lines and have it shipped. A new car? You can get that delivered too.

But there is a notable exception in many places: Booze. Sure, grocery delivery is easy these days, but numerous states forbid a six-pack from being included in your order. And how about that favorite distillery you visit in the state next door every summer? In only a tiny handful of places are they allowed to ship their spirits directly to your mailbox. Or maybe you want to send your long-lost buddy in Idaho the new saison your local brewery just released? Don’t try sending it courtesy the United States Postal Service (USPS) — they forbid booze shipments entirely.

Happily, the pandemic started changing attitudes towards alcoholic beverages. Suddenly to-go margaritas from the bar down the street were a normal part of life, and everything from fifths of bourbon to growlers of craft beer were making their way to our front stoops. As the country has started reopening, many states have taken the further step of making these reforms permanent, ushering in the largest re-thinking of American alcohol laws since the aftermath of Prohibition.

But while state and local governments are busy as bees implementing boozy reforms, the federal government — as ever — seems stuck in the mud. The unofficial motto of USPS proclaims that it delivers in snow or rain, but not if your shipment includes alcohol. Even the pandemic could not change that.

Restrictions on shipping alcohol originated in the lead up to Prohibition when states that had already voted to go dry were trying to block booze flooding in from neighboring wet states. Both state governments and the feds grew increasingly aggressive in their efforts to crack down on these shipments, and by 1920 the nation as a whole had begun its decade-plus experiment with Prohibition.

Even after Prohibition was repealed, much of this anti-shipping sentiment and legal structure remained, however, and it’s stayed with us to the present day. While Americans are used to wine being shipped to their doors, only a very small number of states allow beer and distilled spirits to be shipped.

Even in those that do, USPS’s booze ban means private carriers instead of the post office must do the delivery. This limits the reach of alcohol shipments since private carriers do not deliver to every single address in the county like USPS does, which effectively locks out many rural regions.  

At a time when we can have everything from hand-carved babushka dolls on Etsy to pharmaceutical drugs delivered to our doors, it makes little sense to exclude alcohol. As mentioned, COVID-19 has spurred government officials across our land to liberalize alcohol laws and finally start clearing away some of these century-old hurdles. For instance, during the pandemic Kentucky passed trailblazing legislation allowing distilleries and breweries in the state to ship their products to consumers in any other state that had a reciprocal system in place.

More states should follow suit and start pointing America toward a truly nationwide alcohol market, which would allow, say, Michiganders to have their favorite Vermont-made IPA delivered to their doors, and Virginians to receive their go-to Tennessee whiskey in their mailbox. And the U.S. Postal Service should join the party and finally allow those shipments to go through the post office.

Legislation is pending in Congress to allow craft alcohol producers and retailers to ship via USPS to any state that allows such shipments. Passing this bill would be a good first step, although ultimately the post office should consider allowing individual drinks enthusiasts to use the postal service also for shipping alcohol to their friends and family—something which already happens illegally and could be brought out of the shadows. There’s an added bonus for the post office, too: Alcohol shipping could add substantial annual revenues to the institution’s perennially shaky finances.

As we undergo a nationwide reexamination of our outdated alcohol delivery laws, USPS needs to join the 21st century and keep up. Otherwise, they will remain stuck in the 1920s while the rest of the country skips ahead a century.

C. Jarrett Dieterle is a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute and the author of Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink!



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