Utah and Colorado remind me of siblings. They share some things in common. At other times you can barely see the resemblance. I was reminded of this juxtaposition this week when Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill making powdered alcohol legal in Colorado, while Gov. Gary Herbert just days earlier signed a bill prohibiting the sale or use of it in Utah. Nicknamed “Palcohol,” this powdery substance, when mixed with water, mimics a shot of vodka or rum. It’s a fast way to enjoy alcohol on the go, and in my judgment, a mistake for the people of the Centennial State.
So what’s the big deal? After all, powdered alcohol is just a different form of something that is already legal and regulated. Turns out, the form of the substance is just the problem. Palcohol is portable and concentrated, which creates all sorts of challenges. And as the executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado said, “We have enough problems with the liquid kind.”
The biggest concern involves underage drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among youth in the United States, responsible for an alarming 11 percent of all alcohol consumed and 4,300 deaths each year. Even more alarming, a 2013 CDC survey of high school students found 35 percent drank some form of alcohol, 21 percent binge drank and 10 percent had — in the past 30 days — driven after drinking alcohol.
Youth who drink alcohol are more likely to miss school, earn poor grades, abuse other drugs and commit suicide and homicide. It just stands to reason that a powdered and portable version of the same thing presents new opportunities for abuse. I worry about alcohol poisoning, spiking of drinks and alcohol-related car crashes, to name just a few.
I don’t fault the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for approving powdered alcohol. Their job is not to analyze the potential for abuse, but rather to make certain a label accurately reflects a product. I fault states like Colorado for allowing the sale of the powdered substance. And it was just over a year ago that Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana, too.
To be clear, there are things I would change about Utah’s alcohol regulation, starting with the partitions (commonly referred to as the Zion Curtain) required in restaurants to separate bartenders from customers.
What I do support are regulations that protect the public and help people achieve their full potential. Pot use and alcohol use don’t make us smarter or more creative, they make us less so. They don’t motivate us to do more; they motivate us to do less. A workforce with more marijuana and alcohol use is not a benefit, it’s a cost.
And this is not a straight partisan issue with Utah on the right and Colorado on the left. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently introduced legislation to make the production, sale and possession of powdered alcohol illegal.
I think New York Times writer David Brooks got it right when he opined on the legalization of recreational marijuana. He said it makes it “a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.” The same is true for powdered alcohol. No wonder Alaska, Louisiana, South Carolina and Vermont have also banned the substance. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Minnesota, New York and Ohio are also considering also bans.
Utah and Colorado have many similarities and differences. They are both in the Intermountain West, reside in the same time zone, feature flagship universities in the Pac-12 and enjoy an incredible natural environment. Both states have dynamic and diverse economies and offer great life quality to residents.
But they also have differences. The legalization of recreational marijuana and powdered alcohol is a difference I think Utah has right.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.