Alaska governor signs alcohol reform bill into law, but some changes will take time

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – As the sun rose at Anchorage Golf Course, Governor Mike Donlevy signed Senate Bill 9 into law last Thursday, which will implement drastic changes to Alaska’s alcohol laws.

“I just want to thank everyone who worked so hard on this,” Dunleavy said to applause, holding up the signed bill for the cameras. “Congratulations to all.”

The signing ceremony was uncertain. It took more than nine years and several impending failures to pass the bill through the Alaskan legislature at the end of the last legislative session.

Retired Senate President Peter Mikichi, R-Soldotna, was the bill’s primary sponsor, and said it was an “exciting moment” to see it signed into law. He explained that representatives of pubs, breweries and public safety organizations spent thousands of hours negotiating a compromise agreement despite having vastly different priorities.

“This is an example of how the political process works,” Mikish said.

Large parts of the 127-page bill reorganize and “update” the state’s 40-year-old alcohol laws, but the focus in many of the provisions is on public safety.

Tiffany Hall, president of Recover Alaska, spoke at the ceremony and said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska was recording alcohol-related deaths at double the national average. During the pandemic, Alaska rates rose 31%.

The bill seeks to reduce underage drinking through better education. It is changing how many alcohol violations are penalized with the goal of making them more effective, and it is implementing online email sales of alcohol tracking in small communities in hopes of ending quitting.

Supporters say the legislation updates liquor licenses in a way that better fits the way Alaskans drink. Breweries will be able to purchase a license and operate like a traditional bar serving food, and pub owners will be able to apply for a license to make their own beer.

These changes are set to take effect on January 1, 2024, once the Office of Alcohol and Marijuana Control writes and adopts new regulations. Alaskans who enjoy visiting beer tap rooms will also need to wait until then to see changes in how they work:

  • The tasting rooms will then open at 9am and close at 9pm instead of 8pm
  • They will be able to hold four live concerts each year.
  • Fundraisers, brewery tours, and artistic performances in the tasting rooms will be determined by law and cannot be changed by regulations.
  • The daily drink limit of 36 ounces at breweries will remain unchanged

Lee Ellis, president of the Alaska Brewers’ union, was a key figure in the negotiations and said it was a “huge achievement” and comfort when the bill was signed into law. He runs the Midnight Sun Brewing Co. in Anchorage and is interested in applying for a new pub catering license.

“I think getting that kind of license that allows for more freedom would be more fun,” he said.

One aspect of the bill that has raised questions about its fairness is the population limits for new Taproom licenses; It will be limited to one person for every 9,000 people in communities across Alaska. Ellis described this as a “grant” to achieving strong agreement among a diverse group of stakeholders.

Long-running feuds between traditional pub owners and breweries are known colloquially as “bar wars”. Nearly a decade later, Micciche is ready to call for a permanent ceasefire.

“The bar wars are over,” he said after the signing ceremony. “I think you’ll see people get together, and that’s what the whole bill is about.”

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