The sale of grain alcohol — an especially potent liquor that has long been used to spike watermelons and, some say, encourage binge drinking on college campuses — would be prohibited in Maryland under a measure that passed the state’s Senate by a wide margin Wednesday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), would ban the sale of any alcoholic product at or above 190 proof, or about 95 percent ethyl alcohol.
A violation would be a misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $1,000.
Madaleno and other backers said the prohibition on grain alcohol sales is a priority for college administrators eager to curb the sort of heavy drinking that causes more than 1,800 alcohol-related deaths of college students each year in the United States. It would also bring Maryland in line with neighboring states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he said.
“Because it takes such a small amount, and it’s so cheap, it’s seen as one of the big contributors to alcohol poisoning,” Madaleno said. “That’s why the universities have said, ‘Please get this off the market.’ ”
The bill would not impose penalties on possession of the product, he said.
Grain alcohol, which is marketed under such brand names as Everclear and Gem Clear, has no distinctive taste or smell. It costs about a dollar a shot.
Skeptics suggested that the bill is a feel-good measure that would add a layer of regulation in a highly regulated state without any real effect on college drinking. A student who is unable to buy grain alcohol will buy more of something else, they said.
Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel), holding up a pint of Everclear grain alcohol purchased locally, produced some laughter in the chamber when he read the label: “ ‘Do not apply to an open flame’ — that’s the first warning,” he said. “The second one is, ‘Contents may ignite or explode. Do not consume in excess quantities.’ ”
Reilly acknowledged grain alcohol’s potency, but he suggested that prohibiting its sale would not have a substantive effect on binge drinking. Other products would take its place, he said.
“If two shots of 80 proof are the same as one shot of grain alcohol, does it really matter if we ban one level of alcohol by volume?” Reilly said. “It does not matter, except as a cost factor.”
Prohibition would just add unnecessary regulation, Reilly said. He said only about 10,000 cases of grain alcohol are sold in Maryland a year, and he urged increased efforts to educate the public.
But Sen. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Montgomery), in a scolding tone, said the time for joking about excess drinking was over.
“This is a date rape drug,” Montgomery said. “This is a take-somebody’s-clothes-off-and-take-pictures-of-them. This is a dangerous alcohol. . . . This is the kind of alcohol that leads to that sort of thing.”
The measure passed 37 to 10. The bill has passed the Senate twice before in recent years but has stalled each time in the House of Delegates. But this year, Madaleno said, the bill has the backing of Del. Charles Barkley (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Economic Matters subcommittee on alcoholic beverages, which improves its chances of reaching the House floor.
Everclear is bottled by St. Louis-based Luxco, formerly known as David Sherman Corp. A message left with Luxco’s chairman, Donn Lux, wasn’t immediately returned.