Dan Gillmor: On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from winemakers who want to ship their products to customers at home, selling via the Internet and other modern methods. But old-fashioned laws in several dozen states, written largely at the behest of powerful wholesalers, prohibit direct sales of this kind.

However contrary their position may be to customer rights, the principles of capitalism and simple logic, the wholesalers and their allies have at least an arguable legal case. The matter will likely turn on whether the 21st Amendment trumps the Constitution’s commerce clause. The Depression-era amendment ended Prohibition and gave states the right to regulate alcohol sales within their borders, while the commerce clause makes interstate commerce a federal matter.



In the court of public opinion, opponents of direct shipments like to press the dangers of underage drinking. To get a taste of their argument, visit a site operated by the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America. It’s called www.pointclickdrink.com, and it offers up a pile of scare stories.



Do some under-21s order online? Sure. But to suggest that this is a serious problem, much less insurmountable, is ridiculous.



Who says? Start with Timothy Muris, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. In a statement last year accompanying an FTC report on online wine sales, he said, “Our staff found that the states that allow direct shipping generally report few or no problems with shipments to minors.”



The FTC noted a number of ways that more enlightened states are addressing the issue. They include making adults sign for wine deliveries, and requiring out-of-state shippers to get permits.



“The primary consumer benefit of e-commerce in wine — access to lower-cost sources of high-end, expensive wines — appears unlikely to be important to most underage drinkers,” Muris observed. “Unfortunately, the evidence shows that adolescents currently can obtain alcohol without going to the trouble and expense of ordering it over the Internet.”



Siding with the wholesalers and states that want to keep total control over alcohol sales are several religious and family-advocacy organizations. They mean well, but are casting their lot with people whose motives, not to mention evidence, are questionable at best.



The major issues are money and control. The liquor wholesalers love being government-mandated middlemen. When stores can purchase alcohol only through the wholesalers, these large distributors own what amounts to a toll booth. States, meanwhile, worry that Internet-based sales — like other out-of-state transactions — will erode tax revenues.



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