Most States in U.S. Permit Drinking Under the Age of 21 (the "Legal" Drinking Age)

Contrary to popular belief, most U.S. states (41) permit persons under the age of 21 to consume alcohol under a variety of situations.

"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:

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 frequent 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.

Thus, it is illegal in those nine states plus 11 others and the District of Columbia for Christians under the age of 21 to have a first communion or to receive or celebrate the eucharist (also called Holy communion, the sacrament of the altar, the blessed sacrament, the Lord's supper, and other terms) that would involve their consumption of alcohol. Similarly, it is illegal in all of those 20 states and D.C. for Jews under the age of 21 to drink alcohol at the weekly kiddush ceremony, at their own bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs, at their own wedding rites, or at any other religious ritual.

In addition, alcohol may not legally be prescribed by physicians for health or medical reasons for any patient under the age of 21, nor may parents serve a sip of alcohol in their own home to their own children in any of the nine prohibition states plus many others or in the nation's capital city.

This listing of non-prohibition states indicates the conditions under which alcohol consumption is legal by persons under the age of 21.

Key

1 = On alcohol-selling premises with parental consent

2 = On private non-alcohol-selling premises with parental consent

3 = On private non-alcohol-selling premises without need of parental consent

4 = For religious purposes

5 = For medical purposes

6 = For educational purposes

7 = For governmental purposes

8 = For good Samaritan purposes (reporting alcohol-related medical emergencies of other persons)

Alaska - 2,5

Arizona - 4,5

California - 2,3,4,5,6

Colorado - 2,4,5,6,8

Connecticut - 2,4,5

Delaware - 2,4

Florida - 8

Georgia - 2,4,5

Hawaii - 4

Illinois - 2,4

Iowa - 2,5

Kansas - 1,2

Louisiana - 1,2,3,4,5

Maine - 2

Massachusetts - 1,2,4,5

Michigan - 4,6,7

Minnesota - 2

Mississippi - 1,2,7

Missouri - 6

Montana - 2,4,5,8

Nebraska - 2,3,4,5

Nevada - 1,2,3,4

New Hampshire - *

New Jersey - 2,3,4,5,6

New Mexico - 2,4

New York - 1,2,4,5,6

North Carolina - 4,6

North Dakota - 2,4

Ohio - 2,4,5

Oklahoma - 2,3,4,5,6

Oregon - 2,4,7

Rhode Island - 6

South Carolina - 2,4,6,7

South Dakota - 4

Tennessee - 4

Texas - 1,2,4,5

Utah - 4,5

Vermont - 6

Virginia - 2

Washington - 2,4

Wisconsin - 1,2,4,5

Wyoming -1,2,3,4,5,6

* New Hampshire is often considered a prohibition state. However, persons under the age of 21 can legally possess alcohol when working as servers, hosts, bartenders, etc., in any establishments licensed to sell alcohol. State law provides that any person under the age of 21 "who is intoxicated by consumption of an alcoholic beverage, shall be guilty of a violation...." This implies that alcohol consumption by persons working as servers, hosts, bartenders, etc., in licensed establishments is legal so long as they do not become intoxicated.

Important: This information on drinking laws is informational only. No suggestions or recommendations are made and none should be inferred. Do not rely on this information or any conclusions for any purpose. It does not include local laws and ordinances that may be relevant and does not include qualifications that might be applicable. Always consult a lawyer for the interpretation of law, which is complex and often changes.

 

Reference:

  • 1. Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. Laws: Minimum Drinking Age Laws, mudpc.org/laws.html/.

Readings on the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) of 21:

  • (listing does not imply endorsement)
  • Alcohol Advisory Council. The Minimum Drinking Age. Wellington, NZ: The Alcohol Advisory Council, 1995.
  • AlcoholPolicyMD.com. Arguments for lowering the legal drinking age are not valid. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Arndt, S.K. Adolescent alcohol consumption and a changing legal drinking age. H.S.D. dissertation. Indiana University, 1988.
  • Asch, Peter and Levy, David T. Does the minimum drinking age affect traffic fatalities? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 1987, 6(2).
  • Bolotin, F.N., and DeSario, J. The Politics and Policy Implications of a National Minimum Drinking Age. Cleveland, Ohio, Case Western Reserve University, 1985.
  • Bond, J., and Jones, B. Raising the legal drinking age: issues in alcohol and drug abuse. Issues in Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 1983, 1. OCLC #11290226
  • Carpenter, Christopher, and Dobkin, Carolos. The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on Mortality Regression: Discontinuity Evidence from the Minimum Drinking Age. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2007.
  • Carter, R.A. Legal drinking age. Albany, NY: Legislative and Governmental Services, New York State Library, 1983.
  • Choose Responsibility. The minimum legal drinking age should be lowered. In: Watkins, C. (ed.). Teens at Risk. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009.
  • Col√≥n, Israel. The alcohol beverage purchase age and single-vehicle highway fatalities. Journal of Safety Research, 1984, 15, 159-162.
  • Dailey, R.A. Lowering the legal drinking age will reduce alcohol's allure. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Davis, James E. Alcohol use among college students: Responses to raising the purchase age. Journal of American College Health, 1990, 38, 263.
  • Department of Health and Human Services. Youth and Alcohol: Laws and Enforcement - Is the 21-Year-Old Drinking Age a Myth? Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, 1991.
  • DiMatteo, R. Education and police and community support are necessary [to make the minimum legal age of 21 effective]. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Douglass, R.L. The legal drinking age and traffic casualties: a special case of changing alcohol availability in a public health context. In: Wechsler, H. (ed.). Minimum-drinking-age laws, an evaluation. Lexington, Lexington Books, 1989.
  • Douglass, R.L. The Effect of the Lower Legal Drinking Age on Youth Crash Involvement. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1974.
  • DuMouchel, W., et al. Raising the Alcohol Purchase Age: Its Effects on Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes in 26 States. Washington, DC: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1985.
  • Dunham, N.C., and Detmer, D.E. Traffic accidents and the legal drinking age in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 1983, 82(3), 11-13.
  • Eigen, L. D., and Noble, J. Drinking Under Age 21: Problems and Solutions. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 1994.
  • Engs, Ruth C., and Hanson, David J. University students' drinking patterns and problems: Examining the effects of raising the purchase age. Public Health Reports, 1988, 1, 65-83.
  • Fazzalaro, James J. National Minimum Drinking Age and Witholding of Federal Funds. Connecticut. General Assembly. Office of Legislative Research. Hartford, CT: Connecticut General Assembly, Joint Committee on Legislative Management, Office of Legislative Research, 1984.
  • Gever, M., and Savage, M.A. Lowering the minimum legal drinking age. Legisbrief, 2009, 17(6).
  • Gilbert, Jeffrey. Bill would put lid on birthday binges: Measure aims to stop midnight rite of passage on 21st birthday. Houston Chronicle, January 23, 2005.
  • Goeman, Richard J. Why We Need a Minimum-purchase Age of 21. In: Engs, R. (ed.), Controversies in the Addiction's Field. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1990.
  • Gonzalez, G. Effect of raising the drinking age among college students in Florida. College Student Journal, 1989, 67-75.
  • Gonzalez, G.M. Five-year changes in alcohol knowledge, consumption and problems among students exposed to a campus-wide alcohol awareness program and a rise in the legal drinking age. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 1991, 37(1), 81-99.
  • Hammond, R.L. Legal drinking at 18 or 21- does it make any difference? Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education,1973,18, 9-13.
  • Hanson, D.J., et al. A drinking permit should replace the minimum legal drinking age. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Hanson, D.J. Minimum drinking-age laws are ineffective. In: Balkin, K. (ed.). Alcohol: Opposing Views. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2004.
  • Hanson, D.J. The Drinking Age Should be Lowered. In: Engs, R. (ed.), Controversies in the Addiction's Field. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1990.
  • Hingson, R., et al. Effects of Massachusetts raising its legal drinking age from 18 to 20 on deaths from teenage homicide, suicide and nontraffic accidents. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 1985, 32, 221-233.
  • Hingson, R.W., et al. Impact of legislation raising the legal drinking age in Massachusetts form 18 to 20. American Journal of Public Health, 1983, 73,163-9.
  • Hoover, E. For MADD, the Legal Drinking Age Is Not up for Debate. Chronicle of Higher Education, 2008, 55(11) pA1.
  • Hughes, S.P. and Dodder, R.A. Changing the legal minimum drinking age: results of a longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol,, 1992, 53(6), 568-575.
  • Implementation of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act : hearing before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, House of Representatives, One Hundred Second Congress, second session, October 1, 1992. Washington : U.S. G.P.O., 1992.
  • Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies. Drinking Age Limits. Washington, DC: International Center for Alcohol Policies, March, 1998. (Report number 4).
  • Jones, N.E.The Effect of legal drinking age on adolescent pedestrian fatalities. Doctoral dissertation. Columbia University, 1985.
  • Kanable, R. Adults who undermine the legal drinking age should be punished. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Kindelberger, John. Calculating Lives Saved Due to Minimum Drinking Age Laws. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2005.
  • Lacking, C. The lived experience of alcohol consumption by male, active-duty soldiers below the minimum legal drinking age : a qualitative study. Ph.D. dissertation. Capella University, 2007.
  • Lanzq-Kaduce, L., and Richards, P. Raising the minimum drinking age: Some unintended consequences of good intentions. Justice Quarterly, 1989, 6, 246-262.
  • Levine, D. A legal drinking age of 21 does not reduce drunk driving. In: Haley, J. Drunk Driving. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002.
  • Liebschutz, Sarah F. The national minimum Drinking-age law.
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  • Lotterhos, J. F., Glover, E. D., Holbert, D., and Barnes, R. C. Intentionality of college students regarding North Carolina's 21-year drinking age law. International Journal of the Addictions, 1988, 23, 629-647.
  • McCartt, A.T., et al. Effects of 21 minimum legal drinking age laws on alcohol-related driving in the United States. Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2009.
  • Males, M. The minimum purchase age for alcohol and young-driver fatal rashes: A long-term view. Journal of Legal Studies, 1986, 15(1).
  • Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. Laws: Minimum Drinking Age Laws, mudpc.org/laws.html/.
  • Mason, Timothy, Myszka, Michael, and Winniford, Jennifer. Assessing the Impact of the 21-Year Old Drinking Age: The Texas A & M Study. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the New York State Sociological Association, Oswego, NY, October 7-8, 1988.
  • Miller, J.J. The legal drinking age is outdated and should be lowered. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Minnesota Prevention Resource Center. The Minimum Drinking Age: Issues and Alternatives for Minnesota. Anoka, MT: Minnesota Prevention Resource Center, 1982.
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  • National minimum drinking age. Hearing. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1985.
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  • Paolino, Robert A. The Minimum Drinking Age in Wisconsin. Madison, WI: Legislative Reference Bureau, 1995.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley and Berkowitz, Alan D. Stability and contradiction in college students' drinking following a drinking-age law change. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 1989, 35, 60-77.
  • Quillen, E. Minimum drinking-age laws do not reduce drunk driving. In: Barbour, S. (ed.). Alcohol. Detriot,MI: Greenhaven Press, 2006.
  • Robertson, L.S. Blood alcohol in fatally injured drivers and the minimum legal drinking age. Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, 1989, 14(4), 817-825.
  • Rosenthal, M.P. The minimum drinking age for young people: an observation. Dickinson Law Review, 1988, 92, 649-663.
  • Seaman, B. How bingeing became the new college sport: And why it would stop if we lowered the drinking age. Time, August 21, 2005.
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  • Smart, R.G., and Schmidt, W. Drinking and problems from drinking after a reduction in the minimum drinking age. British Journal of Addiction,1975, 70, 347-58.
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  • Smith, R.A., et al. Legislation raising the legal drinking age in Massachusetts form 18 to 20: Effect on 16 and 17 year-olds. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1984, 45, 534-539.
  • Syvertsen, K.P. Impact of a change in legal drinking age on college students' drinking behavior : a ten year follow-up. M.S. thesis. University of Wyoming, 2000.
  • Tamburello, D. The legal drinking age exacerbates underage drinking. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Tamura, E.H. Should the Minimum Drinking Age Be Changed? Social Studies, 1992, 83(5), 201-207.
  • Tetelbaum, Elina. A Sobering Look at How Minimum Drinking Age Laws Affect Traffic Fatalities. Thesis, Harvard University, 2007.
  • Tiscione, D. Attitudes, behaviors, and the minimum legal drinking age : possible effects of a lower minimum legal drinking age. M.A. thesis. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2010.
  • Toomey, T.L., et al. The minimum legal drinking age: history, effectiveness, and ongoing debate. Alcohol Health & Research World, 1996, 20(4), 205-18.
  • Transportation Research Institute, University of Michigan. National Minimum Drinking Age. Ann Arbor, MI: Transportation Research Institute, University of Michigan, 1984.
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  • United States. Congress. House. Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. National minimum drinking age law : hearing before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, House of Representatives, Ninety-ninth Congress, second session, September 18, 1986.
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  • United States. Congress. Senate. National minimum drinking age : hearing before the Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate, Ninety-eighth Congress, second session, on examining the tragedy of alcohol-related auto fatalities and whether the answer to this problem is to increase the minimum drinking age. June 19, 1984. Washington, DC: U.S. G.P.O., 1985.
  • United States Department of Health and Human Services. The minimum legal drinking age should not be lowered. In: Watkins, C. (ed.). Teens at Risk. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009.
  • Vingilis, E. and Smart, Reginald G. Effects of raising the legal drinking age in Ontario. British Journal of Addiction, 1981, 76, 415-424.
  • Wagenaar, A.C. Effects of minimum drinking age on alcohol-related traffic crashes: The Michigan experience five years later. In: HD Holder (Ed). Control Issues in Alcohol Abuse Prevention: Impacting Communities. Greenwich, Conn, JAI Press, 1988.
  • Wagenaar, A.C, and Toomey, T.L. Minimum drinking-age laws are effective. In: Balkin, K. (ed.). Alcohol: Opposing Views. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2004.
  • Wagenaar, A.C. Effects of an increase in the legal minimum drinking age. Journal of Public Health Policy, 1981, 2, 206-225.
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  • Wechsler, Henry (ed.) Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1980.
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  • Weimer, Douglas R. Legal Analysis of Questions Regarding the National Minimum Drinking Age. Washington, DC: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service., 1985.
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  • Williams, Alan F., et al. The effects of raising the legal minimum drinking age on involvement in fatal crashes. Journal of Legal Studies, 1983,12,169-79.
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