Last updated: June 15. 2014 2:35AM - 3530 Views
By Dwight Williamson For Civitas Media

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An act to amend a West Virginia law which will affect those persons under the age of twenty- one years of age who consume, purchase, sale, service or possess “non-intoxicating” beer or liquor was passed by the West Virginia Legislature March 4, 2014 and went into effect Monday, June 9, of last week. The law also applies to anyone under the age of twenty-one utilizing fake identification to purchase alcohol.

To paraphrase this new section, designated 60-6-26, it means a person under the age of twenty-one who receives a citation or is otherwise charged with just about any alcohol related offense except driving under the influence of alcohol will be able to have the charge removed from the individual’s record with no fine being assessed. A person entering a guilty plea or one who is found guilty of the charge may ask the presiding magistrate to place him or her on unsupervised probation for a six-month period and, providing the individual commits no further crimes, can after one year request that the charge be dismissed. The effect of the discharge and dismissal is to restore the person “in contemplation of the law to the status he or she occupied prior to the arrest or citation”. If the person violates a term or condition of probation, the court may enter an adjudication of guilt and proceed as otherwise provided by law. In simple English, it would appear the intent of the change in the law is to allow young persons a way of clearing their records for military or other job purposes.

This law appears to be logical since for many years a similar law has applied in reference to the charge of possession of less than fifteen grams of marijuana. That code allows magistrates to place an individual on unsupervised probation for six months, assess only court costs and then allow the charge to be stricken from the record after one year from the assessment date. Interestingly, this law also applies to sixteen and seventeen year-olds possessing marijuana. However, those same individuals convicted of possessing any tobacco product face much stiffer penalties. Any person under the age of eighteen years “possessing any cigarette, cigarette paper or any other paper prepared, manufactured or made for the purpose of smoking any tobacco products, or any pipe, snuff, chewing tobacco or tobacco product” faces the following penalties: a $50 fine and $160.25 court costs; and that person is required to serve eight hours of community service. However, the charge stays on your record. The laws of the land obviously can be tricky, controversial and perhaps unfair.

Upon reviewing the new alcohol law, this writer would like to present some observations readers might find of interest. For instance, just what is “non-intoxicating beer’? In a county and state where young people’s lives are being destroyed by pills of all sorts and other drugs that apparently can be found easier than a 20-year-old can get a can of “non-intoxicating” beer, it tends to make one wonder.

Since the very beginning of the migration west to the Appalachian Mountains by early settlers of the region, alcohol, particularly moonshine, has played a different but true role in the history of the region. Of course, a prime example of its historical relevance is on Election Day in Pike County, Kentucky, in 1862, when Ellison Hatfield, brother of Devil Anse was stabbed 26 times then shot by Tolbert McCoy and two of his brothers. All were drinking moonshine that unfortunate day. Ellison’s death proved to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” as far as the Hatfields were concerned. The leader of the McCoy clan, Randolph McCoy, years after the feud ended, fell into an open fire at his nephews home while he was drunk and later died in 1914 from the burns he suffered.

In those days, it was not unusual for the rugged mountaineers of the region to be seen with a “little brown jug” hanging by a rope around their necks. It allowed them to take a “swig” without removing the rope. Moonshine was also an important cash crop. It was used in the bartering of goods and was even traded for many things, including land.

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution brought full prohibition to the United States January 16, 1920. However, despite every hollow in Logan County and most of southern West Virginia, producing the “white lightning”, made from the then pure waters of the region and locally grown corn, most readers might be surprised to know that Prohibition began in West Virginia in 1914. Fact is, in 1910, thirty-seven of the state’s fifty-five counties were “dry” counties.

Even while the Hatfields and McCoys were still trying to kill each other almost on a daily basis in 1883, this state’s House of Delegates voted 49-14 to pass prohibition, but it was narrowly defeated in the Senate, 15-11. In 1888, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution was defeated during the general election by 37,887 votes. Since history reveals the northern half of West Virginia traditionally voted against prohibition and the south for it, it can be derived that there was a great deal of religious support in the “bible belt” of the south. It is interesting to note that women at that time had not achieved the right to vote.

What one must realize is that the United States’ oldest federal tax is the tax on alcohol which was brought on almost immediately after the Revolutionary War. The country was trying to pay off the war’s debt it owed, mostly to France, and since so many of the old guard produced their own spirits, it appeared to be the best way for the new country to raise the monies needed. Of course, Americans were appalled by this action and rebelled. It helped lead, along with land grants handed out by the government to war veterans, to the expansion into the rugged hills and mountains of Appalachia. The waters of the mountains proved perfect for the making of corn liquor to the independent minded hill people, most of whom were English, Welsh, Scotch or Irish. It would be many years later when imported workers were needed for the many coal mines opening in the region that the Italians and others would bring their tremendous wine making abilities to the area.

From 1920 to 1933, The Logan Banner’s microfilm files are filled with stories of killings by both federal “revenuers” and local moonshiners at the local level. Prohibition had caused a dramatic increase in the making of moonshine because the price had increased significantly and the out-of-state demand was high. Appalachian “shine” was considered the best. Of course, it got its name from the fact that most moonshiners did their work at night in the hills, and by the light of the moon. There are untold numbers of federal agents who simply disappeared in and around the hills of Logan County.

Poorly made and even poisonous liquor was being produced in the bigger cities of Chicago, New York, Detroit, etc. while Prohibition was in effect. Numerous gangsters, Al Capone, being just one prime example, were the result of the law. Murders became rampant between various gangs and also with the government. Meanwhile, the “mountain dew” was flowing in Logan County as evidenced during testimony in the murder story of Mamie Thurman in 1932. Coal company executives’ private parties and certain private “clubs” were supplied their firewater on a regular basis in good ‘ole Logan County. Murder rates in the county increased dramatically, most of them directly related to illegal liquor.

The Banner reported in July of 1932 that there had been over thirty murders in Logan County just in the month of June. Many of those deaths came as a result of wives who killed their husbands. From accounts in the newspapers of the time, women were “tired of him coming home drunk and beating on me.”

Prohibition was repealed in 1934, but prohibited the consumption of “intoxicating liquors” “in a saloon or other public place”. The price of moonshine went down and so did murders. Beer has been available in privately owned retail stores since that year. Prior to 1990 liquor was sold only in state-owned ABC stores. It seemed every election year in Logan County during the 1960s and parts of the 70s, a liquor store would be broken into and robbed shortly before the election. Of course, it was routine at the time for many election ground workers to supply a half pint or more of cheap liquor to some potential voters. As a young boy, I personally witnessed these transactions at Verdunville precinct on Mud Fork. It was the same throughout most of the county on election eve and day during those times.

In 1937, the state redefined standard beer as “non-intoxicating beer” and that allowed the sale of beer in bars and restaurants. Technically, all beer sold in West Virginia today is legally “non-intoxicating.” I’m sure that comes, at least psychologically, as good news to those “hanging out” around the town of Logan’s Dollar Store. I can hear the police now: “You’re too non-intoxicated, Claude, go home before I have to arrest you.”

Prior to 2009, beer sold in West Virginia was between 0.5 percent and not more than 6 percent alcohol by volume. Since the law was changed that year, “non-intoxicating beer” has been between 0.5 percent and 12 percent alcohol. Statistics show there has been no increase in the higher rates of underage drinking or DUIs due to this change. However, statistically speaking, underage drinking has increased, of course, since the legal drinking age was changed to twenty-one in 1986. Since that time, illegal drug use has grown to an all-time dilemma, although there may be no direct correlation.

The legal drinking age was eighteen for beer/wine and twenty-one for liquor until 1972 when it was lowered to eighteen for all alcoholic beverages. It was raised to nineteen in 1983 (twenty-one for non-residents). The argument is often made in regard to the current drinking age of twenty-one; the point always made by some is that “if you’re old enough to die for your country, you should be old enough to drink a beer.” Since statistics show 10,000 people annually die in alcohol related automobile accidents perhaps, it should more appropriately be argued that “drinking and driving” is the problem.

Laws will come and go and changes always will be made to existing ones, if not eliminated completely. However, the tradition of making homemade whiskey still exists in the Appalachians hills and the ‘shine is probably readily available for those who know where to look for it.

Just remember, “the law is the law” — at least for today.

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