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General Assembly passes bill to allow sale of 151-proof liquor

RICHMOND, Va. – The General Assembly has given final approval to a bill that would allow the sale of 151-proof liquor in Virginia – a choice available in almost all other states, but one some fear could increase binge drinking and other problems on college campuses.

“I am glad to see Virginia join the ranks of 48 other states that have legalized clear, 151-proof alcohol. The law banning the legislation is a law left over from the days of Prohibition,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, who sponsored the bill.

Under HB 1842, state-controlled liquor stores will be able to sell neutral grain spirits up to 151 proof (75.5 percent alcohol), an increase from the previous limit of 101 proof (50.5 percent alcohol).

Knight sponsored similar legislation in 2016, but it was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who echoed the concerns of university officials about 151-proof liquor. “A prime market for these products is young people who are attracted to their high proof and low cost,” McAuliffe wrote in his veto message last spring.

A McAuliffe spokesman said the governor has not taken a stand on HB 1842.

This year’s bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 36-4 in the Senate on Tuesday. Last month, the House approved the measure, 83-14.

To assuage concerns from organizations such as the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council, Knight cooperated with Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, to include a five-year sunset clause in HB 1842. The legality of 151-proof grain alcohol would expire on July 1, 2022, and lawmakers then would decide whether to renew the law.

In addition, under the bill, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could choose not to sell 151-proof alcohol products near college campuses.

Some university officials have expressed concerns about highly potent liquor. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has likened it to a “date rape” drug because of the correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault.

A popular 151-proof liquor is Everclear, which also comes in a 190-proof variety. It is made by Luxco, a clear liquor producer based in St. Louis. Vectre Corp., a lobbying firm in Richmond, represents Luxco.

Vectre officials said 151-proof clear alcohols were used mostly for culinary purposes rather than for straight consumption. An Everclear study conducted in 2015 found that 64 percent of product purchases were made by consumers over age 31.

Virginia and Vermont are the only states that ban sales of 151-proof liquor. Despite such restrictions, Virginia residents could easily cross into neighboring states to purchase strong neutral-grain alcohols.

According to Knight, the motivation behind HB 1842 is economic. A House workgroup report showed ABC sold more than $13,000 in grain alcohol during the 2016 fiscal year to purchasers holding special permits for industrial, commercial, culinary or medical purposes.

“Now Virginians do not have to drive to other states, and give their tax money, to purchase this spirit,” Knight said. “This legislation will allow Virginians the same purchasing power as 48 other states, have the taxes come to the commonwealth, and provide restaurants with 151 (proof) for cooking purposes.”

By Amy Lee with Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.