Mississippi House votes to allow liquor sales in small towns

Published 11:28 am Monday, February 12, 2024

The House passed a bill that would no longer prohibit Mississippi’s small towns from selling liquor and wine — a Prohibition-era carryover still enforced for municipalities in many “dry” counties.

The measure, which passed the House Feb. 6 by a vote of 93-21, would automatically legalize the sale and manufacture of wine and liquor in all municipalities in the state that have 5,000 or fewer residents. Currently, many of those small municipalities cannot sell liquor or wine at all.

Jefferson Davis County was the first county in Mississippi to issue a prohibition on alcohol after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1933.

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There are currently two liquor stores in Prentiss and one in Bassfield.

House State Affairs Chairman Hank Zuber III, a Republican from Ocean Springs, said the law is intended to support tourism in smaller areas and add some level of conformity to the state’s hodgepodge network of alcohol laws.

“This is just a matter of bringing Mississippi into the 21st century,” Zuber said on Tuesday.

The majority of Mississippi’s 82 counties, commonly called “wet” counties, allow liquor and wine sales. But approximately 30 counties in the state do not allow hard liquor sales and are typically referred to as “dry” counties. Some large cities inside those dry counties, however, do allow spirit and wine sales, leading to the nickname of “moist” counties.

Municipalities with more than 5,000 residents inside of dry counties already have the option to conduct a local election to allow liquor and wine sales.

The House proposal would not change the restrictions in dry counties, but it would make municipalities with 5,000 or fewer residents inside the dry counties wet.

If the measure becomes law, it would allow the small towns to conduct a referendum to become dry again. To trigger a local election, a total of 1,500 residents or 20% of the citizens — whichever is less — must sign a petition.

The state’s byzantine and sometimes contradicting alcohol laws date back to the early 19th century. Mississippi became the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment that instituted Prohibition.

During Mississippi’s Prohibition period, the state’s policies became so hypocritical that it once established a State Tax Collector office, where the main goal of the agency was to collect a “black market” tax on illegal whiskey.

In 1966, Mississippi became the last state to repeal its statewide Prohibition law and pass the current law allowing counties to decide for themselves whether they wanted to legalize liquor sales.

The distribution of alcohol in Mississippi is now state-controlled. The Mississippi Department of Alcohol Beverage Control imports, stores and sells millions of cases of spirits and wines each year.

The House measure now heads to a Senate committee for consideration. If passed into law, the bill would take effect on Jan. 1, 2025.