Why Can’t the Post Office Ship Beer and Wine?

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Illustration by Alexander Ho

The latest proposal to save the financially strapped U.S. Postal Service would allow it to ship beer and wine, overturning a temperance-era law that has been on the books for more than a century.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed legislation designed to help stabilize the post office’s finances. The bill would open the door to five-day instead of six-day delivery, it would restructure billion-dollar payments the postal service is mandated to put toward preretiree health benefits, and it would provide retirement incentives to close to 100,000 employees, all of which would help the post office drastically cut costs. But the most intriguing proposal in the Senate bill would allow the postal service to ship wine and beer around the country.

(MORE: How the U.S. Postal Service Fell Apart)

Private carriers like UPS and FedEx have shipped booze for years, but the post office has been constrained by a law that’s been on the books since before Prohibition.

For legal nerds, the regulations can be traced back to Section 217 of 18 U.S.C. 1716(f) of the Act of March 4, 1909, ch. 321, 35 Stat. 1131, according to the post office’s legal department. You probably knew that already, but that act was a general recodification of the country’s penal statutes, which barred poisons, explosives, harmful items and “all spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented or other intoxicating liquors of any kind” from being shipped by the Postal Service.

The law appears to be an outgrowth of the temperance movement, which achieved its ultimate victory 10 years later with Prohibition.

But things are a tiny bit different from how they were near the turn of the 20th century. As private carriers have cornered beer-and-wine shipments nationwide, online shopping has expanded the sorts of beverages available to U.S. consumers. Now, as the post office looks for ways to dig out of its financial hole, it’s realizing that overturning the 1909 law may be a smart move.

(MORE: One Online Petition’s Goal: Ending Junk Mail)

“With the onslaught of e-commerce, as long as [beer and wine] ship legally in terms of states that we’re allowed to ship, I think you’re going to see it take off,” says Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.

But there are a few hurdles the post office would have to jump over to begin shipping booze. First, it would have to make sure it wasn’t shipping to anyone underage. Donahoe says the post office can get around that by requiring a signature either at home or at a local post office. USPS would also have to make sure it wasn’t delivering to states that don’t allow the shipment of out-of-state beer, wine or alcohol. For example, only 14 states allow the importation of wine from out-of-state wine retailers, while 40 states allow an out-of-state winery to ship to them, according to Tom Wark, executive director of Specialty Wine Retailers Association.

Donahoe says he doesn’t believe that getting a federal agency like the post office involved in shipping alcohol across state lines is in any way disreputable. In fact, he already has some shipping ideas if the bill passes: two-, four- and six-bottle wine boxes for one flat rate that would ship anywhere in the country.

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