States Consider Restoring the Minimum Legal Drinking Age to 18

The United States has the highest national minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in the world -- no country has a higher minimum drinking age. Raising the drinking age to 21 was a radical social experiment both cross-culturally and historically.

Most other countries have a minimum drinking age of 18 and it's rarely enforced vigorously. Except in Islamic countries, most of the world has a much more relaxed attitude toward the consumption of alcohol among young people and, consequently, suffers fewer alcohol-related problems among their youth. The U.S. has the strictest youth drinking laws in the Western world and, internationally speaking, its underage alcohol drinking laws are radical.

Alcohol consumption among young people has traditionally been an integral part of American society from our earliest colonial period. In 1673, the influential minister Increase Mather praised alcohol, declaring that "Drink is in itself a creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness." Consistent with that belief, toddlers drank beer, wine, and hard cider with their parents and regular use was seen as healthful for everyone. Therefore, a brewery was one of Harvard College's first construction projects so that a steady supply of beer could be served in the student dining hall.

Because alcohol continues to be such an important part of American life, most adults age 18, 19 and 20 consume alcoholic beverages. Indeed, by raising the drinking age and making consumption a sign of "real adulthood," our laws have made drinking even more attractive. And drinking in excess has become a standard way of rebelling against what is seen as an unjust and immoral law.

Americans become adults at age 18 and at that time enjoy the right to marry, adopt children, serve on juries, enter into binding legal contracts, operate businesses, employ others, go to prison, be executed, obtain abortions, engage in legal games of chance (gamble), hunt with deadly weapons, fly airplanes, drive automobiles and other vehicles, purchase (or perform in) erotica or pornography, vote, and risk their lives by serving in the United States military. However, they can't legally enjoy a drink.

Legislators and other citizens in a number of states have begun to question the wisdom of such a high minimum legal drinking age and denial of rights.

Dr. John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College, advocates issuing drinking learner permits analogous to driving learner permits to adults age 18, 19 and 20. He has organized an organization, Choose Responsibility to promote this approach to reducing the problem.

Opponents argue that any state lowering its drinking age would lose 10% of its federal highway funds. However, the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act of 1984 doesn't actually call for states to lower their drinking ages. It only requires them to prohibit the (a) purchase and (b) public possession of alcoholic beverages. In fact, many states have no minimum legal drinking age, yet continue to receive full federal funding.

States could conform to the federal law by decriminalizing the purchase and public possession of alcohol by adults age 18 through 20 and prohibiting any fines or other penalties. Those with laws prohibiting drinking by such adults could conform to the federal legislation by similarly decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol and prohibiting fines or other punishments.

 

Sources:

  • Scharnberg, Kristen. States weighing lower age to drink. Chicago Tribune, March9, 2008.
  • Keen, Judy. States weigh lowering drinking age. USA Today, March 21, 2008.

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