The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

The Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition (MUDPC) summarizes the provisions of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 as follows:

The legal age for alcohol in the USA is 21 years old. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21. States that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act. The U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that all states are in compliance with this act. The national law specifically prohibits purchase and public possession of alcoholic beverages. It does not prohibit persons under 21 (also called youth or minors) from drinking. The term "public possession" is strictly defined and does not apply to possession for the following:

  • An established religious purpose, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older
  • Medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution
  • In private clubs or establishments
  • In the course of lawful employment by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer.” 1 (Emphasis in original. Conspicuously not emphasized is the significant fact that “the law does not prohibit persons under 21 (also called youth or minors) from drinking.”)

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) subsequently identified 19 states which did not specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol by persons under the age of 21. However, those states are in compliance with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. It would appear that such states could legally only charge underage persons with public possession of alcohol, not underage drinking.

The title of the legislation itself is clearly misleading in that the National Minimum Age Drinking Act doesn’t prohibit drinking by persons under the age of 21 (so-called “underage” persons) nor does it require the states to prohibit such drinking. In addition, descriptions of the law contribute to the false belief that it does. For example, the assertion that “the legal age for alcohol in the USA is 21 years old” clearly leaves the false impression that the minimum legal drinking age for alcohol is 21.

 

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