BOSTON — Opponents to an initiative currently circulating in the Massachusetts State House to lift restrictions on beer and wine sales at local retailers met on Beacon Hill earlier this week to argue against the bills’ passing.

The proposal, backed by Westborough-based Cumberland Farms, would grant additional licenses to potentially several thousand retail food and convenience stores to sell beer and wine for off-sale consumption. Massachusetts state law currently limits retailers with multiple locations to only nine licenses. The initiative would gradually eliminate the licensing cap by 2024. 

While supporters claim the proposal would increase competition and revenue for the state, critics fear that it could also lead to monopolization by big-box retailers.

“We were taken completely by surprise when this came about,” Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, told Boston 25 News on Monday. “You will be potentially adding 3,100 convenience stores, 2,000 markets, and Walmarts and Targets and any other type of store that sells food on top of that to the existing 2,500 licenses.”

“I think that (current laws) have been effective in controlling the way liquor is distributed throughout the state,” said former association president Benjamin Weiner. It has kept competition within reason, and I don’t believe there is anybody in this room or in this state who has lacked for the availability of purchasing of alcohol under the proper conditions.”

The argument mirrors an attempt by the association to block a similar bill in November. The argument pivots on four points: whether sales of wine and beer should be permitted in an unlimited number of locations in a certain city or town, whether one entity should be able to hold an unlimited number of licenses to sell alcohol, whether retail buyers of alcohol should have to present identification regardless of apparent age and whether funds from the alcohol excise tax should be diverted to a separate fund used by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

The complaint also argues that diverting money from the general fund into a separate fund is unconstitutional.

"You can't have these logically distinct things all crammed into one ballot initiative; you're supposed to give the voters a single question of public policy so they can A: understand it and B: decide whether they support it or not," attorney Ben Goldberger of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, who represents the association, said at the time.

Oral arguments both in favor and opposed to the proposal are expected to take place at the State House in early April. If passed, the ballot initiative could go into effect as early as December of this year.

Image via Flickr/Mike Mozart