Prohibition was repealed in the United States in 1933, but not in Damascus, the last dry town in Montgomery County. But that could change next year.
State legislators representing Damascus are prepared to introduce a bill in January to allow voters in the town to decide if they want to keep the ban on alcohol. The bill is narrowly written to only permit the sale of beer and light wine, also known as table wine, in restaurants to customers seated at tables.
A handful of restaurants in Damascus offer table service.
The Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control grants licenses to establishments to sell beer, wine or liquor.
After receiving more than 20 emails and calls from Damascus residents who would like to be able to drink beer or wine in a restaurant, state Sen. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Dist. 14) of Brookeville said she decided to introduce a bill to repeal prohibition.
If the bill passes the state legislature in the upcoming session, the repeal would be on the ballot next November in Damascus only.
The bill does not allow the sale of alcohol and limits the sale of beer and light wine to restaurants that do not have pool tables, shuffleboards, dart boards, video games, pinball machines or other recreational devices. Customers must be seated at a table when drinking.
“We’ve tried to be respectful of the folks who don’t want a bunch of kids going in a pool hall and getting drunk,” Montgomery said.
No one has asked to have bars in Damascus, said Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville, who is co-sponsoring the bill in the Maryland House with other District 14 delegates.
People have moved to Damascus from Bethesda and other urban areas of the county to have more land, Montgomery said.
“These are the kind of folks I don’t think will be carrying on,” she said.
Lifelong Damascus resident Gary Richard is opposed to lifting the prohibition.
“When you open the door to any kind of license to beer and wine, you’ve just opened the door ... It will continue until everything is legal,” he said. “That’s the way it happened in Kensington.”
Kensington repealed its prohibition on serving alcoholic beverages in restaurants in 2000, leaving Damascus as the last dry town in the county. This year limited package sales of beer were allowed.
“I’ve heard [Damascus] convenience store operators saying they wanted to sell beer and wine,” Richard said.
This bill would be a radical change for the community, he said.
“It will change the character of the town,” Richard said. “[Being dry] is one of the characteristics that has made and shaped the town.”
Being alcohol free has created an environment that is better for raising a family, he said. Richard expects the majority of the community will agree with him.
The legislators “will walk in with egg on their face” for proposing something that is against the community’s wishes, he said.
The last attempt to repeal the ban on beer and wine sales in Damascus in 1996 failed by a narrow margin.
Randy Scritchfield, president of the Damascus Community Alliance, led that effort.
“We thought it was a very palatable bill, something the community could live with while also helping the businesses in the community,” he said.
Opponents sent home fliers through school PTAs stating that Hooters in Rockville also has just a beer and wine license, suggesting Damascus would soon have a Hooters, Scritchfield said.
“I do think it would get better businesses in here,” he said.
He warned supporters of the bill not to take its passage for granted. He supports the bill but is too busy to lead the effort.
“The fairest way to change it is to give people the option at the ballot box,” Luedtke said. “We have no interest with moving forward with any changes unless voters approve them.”
There will be a public hearing on the bill and other bills proposed by the Montgomery County delegation at 7 p.m., Dec. 5 at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Ave. in Rockville
“My hope and goal is to have people express their thoughts on it,” said Del. Craig J. Zucker (D-Dist. 14) of Brookeville, also a sponsor of the bill.