Ordering alcohol over the Internet isn’t nearly as popular among minors as more traditional methods of getting booze, such as using fake IDs in liquor stores. But the ease and anonymity with which youths can buy alcohol from the rapidly growing number of sellers on the Internet is a key issue in a nationwide legal battle that reflects how technology could dramatically change the alcohol distribution system established after Prohibition ended in 1933.
Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to resolve conflicting rulings by courts in New York and Michigan over whether states can ban out-of-state companies from shipping wine, beer and liquor directly to customers. Fifteen states have such bans; most of the rest have some limits on shipments. The restrictions are part of a distribution system that requires wineries, breweries and distilleries to sell their products to state-licensed wholesalers, which then sell them to liquor stores. The laws make it easy for states to tax alcohol. And as an obstacle to underage drinking, the laws also require customers to purchase alcohol in face-to-face transactions in which IDs can be checked. Critics say the laws have been made obsolete by the Internet and by the boom in U.S. vineyards, which have changed the landscape for alcohol sales.