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Alcohol delivery services offer convenience, but state law murky

Substance abuse specialists object to home delivery services, saying they make it easier for alcoholics to get their hands on a drink.AP File/2006

When Anthony Farrell, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, wants to have friends over for drinks, he can flick open his iPhone and order a few bottles of cider, or maybe rum, and the drinks are delivered in under an hour or so — as if he had ordered a pizza.

Farrell uses Drizly, one of several Boston startups that allow consumers to buy alcohol online and have it delivered the same day.

"I just thought it was a cool product," said Farrell, who first used Drizly for a small graduation celebration last spring. "Me and my friends were at the dorm, and it went very well."


Many liquor stores have long delivered for customers by special request, but Drizly and other new services are streamlining the experience with apps and the Web, as other startups have done with things like dinner reservations and taxi service.

"Our goal is to create a new experience, just like Netflix, Uber, and others are doing in their respective spaces," said Pable Bello, chief executive of DrinkIn, an online ordering service that provides couriers who pick up the alcohol from a nearby liquor store and deliver it using a bicycle cart.

So far, DrinkIn delivers only to parts of Cambridge. Bello said he is just testing the business idea at this point. But DrinkIn is actively raising money and plans to develop a more sophisticated online store that will be able to make recommendations, based on users' previous selections.

Drizly, meanwhile, doesn't deliver alcohol itself. Rather, it partners with liquor stores to fill and deliver the orders — 11 so far in Boston, Cambridge, and outlying municipalities such as Acton and Winchester. The company charges liquor stores a flat monthly fee to enroll in the service.

And Foodler, a takeout food site, allows liquor stores to sell alcohol using its online menu. So far, Sullivan Square Liquors in Somerville and Top Shelf Liquors in Boston each have extensive offerings of beer, wine, and liquor, which are delivered by store employees or courier services such as DASHED.


But unlike Chinese food deliveries and movie rentals, liquor sales are highly regulated. Indeed, services similar to DrinkIn and Drizly in other states have been forced to cease alcohol deliveries.

Massachusetts law allows businesses that have licenses to sell alcohol to deliver it, too, provided they obtain a state permit for the vehicle. And they must get the customer to sign a receipt declaring he or she is not under age 21.

Drizly believes its service is lawful, since the company only facilitates the delivery of alcohol by liquor store employees.

"It's an unknown kind of legal area," said Drizly's founder, Nicholas Rellas, a recent Boston College graduate. "We're working within the system, within the laws."

At DrinkIn, Bello said that based on the company's legal review, its service complies with state rules.

The Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission declined to comment on these new home-delivery services.

The issue is reminiscent of the confusion over wine shipments from out of state vineyards. A Massachusetts law that banned direct shipments to consumers was struck down by a federal judge, but the Legislature has yet to adopt changes to clarify how such purchases can be delivered.

Meanwhile, substance abuse specialists object to home delivery services, saying they make it too easy for alcoholics to get their hands on alcohol.


Dr. Mark Willenbring, a former director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institutes of Health, has studied home delivery of alcohol. In 1996, he coauthored a report that found problem drinkers gravitated toward the services, probably for their convenience and relative anonymity.

The advent of easy-to-use Web-powered delivery services, Willenbring said, "would be very likely to increase consumption, rather substantially, especially among problem drinkers. All in all, I think it's a very bad idea."

Some alcoholics try to control their drinking by buying a limited amount of alcohol and staying in, but delivery services can confound that strategy, Willenbring said. He also found that problem drinkers were more likely to use delivery services if they lived in an urban area and didn't have access to a vehicle.

"The clinical experience was that even people who couldn't drive because they didn't have a driver's license, or because their family members had taken away their car keys, or were too sick to drive, a lot of them would use home delivery," Willenbring said.

Rellas acknowledged the potential for abuse, but doesn't think it is best fought with regulation. And, he pointed out, services like Drizly could keep drunk drivers off the road.

"You can't go into a vice industry without those tough questions," Rellas said. "There's always the capacity for overconsumption."