Is the legal drinking age too high?

Safety, Traffic law

It’s a debate that’s been going on for a while now: Should we lower the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) from 21 to 18?

Proponents believe teens who can purchase alcohol legally will be less inclined to engage in the binge drinking rampant on today’s college campuses. Opponents say that the current MLDA protects young people against everything from problems in brain development to fatalities from traffic accidents. Who’s right?

First, a little history

After Prohibition ended in 1933, laws involving alcohol were turned over to the states. Today, the legal minimum drinking age is 21 in every state. But it wasn’t always; during the 1970s, 29 states lowered the MLDA from 21 to either 18, 19, or 20. Then, in 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Legal Drinking Act, which threatened a 10% loss of federal highway construction funds to states that did not enforce a MLDA of 21.

“Each state still has the ability to control its drinking age,” explains attorney Eric Harron of Austin, Texas. “However, the federal government has mandated that a state with a drinking age under 21 will receive significantly less money for road maintenance. Because of this, every state has had a 21-year-old legal drinking age since the late 1980s.”

Arguments for lowering the legal drinking age

An MLDA of 21 has not stopped teen drinking. Instead, it has pushed underage binge drinking into secretive environments, leading to catastrophic behavior by teens.

“Keeping the legal drinking age at 21 leads to a forbidden fruit attraction to alcohol and binge drinking,” says attorney Harron. “The only way to teach responsible alcohol consumption is to remove that forbidden fruit aspect of drinking and empower young people to make good choices.”

Indeed, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reveal that, despite it being illegal, underage drinking is nevertheless a widespread public health problem. Young people drink less frequently than adults do, but when they do, they partake far more. According to the NIAAA, “young people consume more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking.” And these young people have little trouble finding alcohol: A 2013 study showed that 93.7 percent of adolescents 12-14 who drank alcohol got it for free the last time they drank.

The Amethyst Initiative, signed by chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges across the nation, states that “21 is not working as well as the public may think, that its unintended consequences are posing increasing risks to young people, and that it is time for a serious debate among our elected representatives about whether current public policies are in line with current realties.”

Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) also argues that keeping 21 as the legal drinking age makes no sense. “The drinking age is the only exception to the legal age of adulthood in the U.S.,” reads the organization’s website. “We consider 18 year olds to be adult enough to vote, serve in the armed forces, enter into contracts, marry, and even serve on juries. Legal age 21 is inconsistent with our notion of what it means to be an adult in the United States.”

Arguments for staying at 21

Opponents of lowering the legal drinking age cite scientific data and market research to support their position. They argue that teens have not yet reached an age at which they can drink responsibly, making them more likely to harm themselves or others as a result.

Reports in the 1970s showed that teenage car accidents increased in states where the MLDA was lower than 21. And the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs predicts that lowering the drinking age may result in an increase in the rate of high school dropouts, particularly among minority groups.

Furthermore, young people are particularly prone to the damaging physiological effects of alcohol. Brain development continues well into an individual’s 20s, and alcohol can affect this development and contribute to a wide range of problems.

Will anything change?

While the debate continues, it seems doubtful that any change in the MLDA is in the offing. As attorney Christina Pendleton of Richmond, Virginia, who routinely represents college students charged with alcohol-related offenses, observes, “You will not see any change in the national minimum drinking age to purchase and publicly possess alcohol as long as the federal mandate of 21 is tied to the federal funding of state highway projects.”

“With funds being scarce on the state level, tons of research showing that the 21-year-limit has reduced incidents of alcohol-related traffic deaths in this age group, and no real outcry to change the law, it will likely never happen in our lifetime.”

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