Tag Archives: drinking

3 States Consider Lowering the Drinking Age

BY JEFFREY A. TUCKER – At last, cracks in America’s draconian drinking-age edifice are starting to appear. A movement is developing that would make US law like most other civilized countries in the world.

New Hampshire is considering legislation that would allow people 18 and older to consume wine and beer (but not liquor) in a public, commercial establishment, as long as they are accompanied by someone over 21.

A bill in the Minnesota state legislature would do the same.

And next November, California will vote on a ballot initiative that would simply lower the drinking age to 18 across the board. The states would lose eight percent of federal highway funding, but they could expect to make up the difference in alcohol sales.

It’s long past time. Will they pass? Probably not this time. Nationally, a lower drinking age is supported by only 25 percent of the population. That’s better than the 20 percent in 2001. But it is not enough for real momentum for a legal change. A major problem concerns widespread ignorance about the secret world of underage drinking that has emerged over the decades.

At least the debate has begun.

In the 1970s, 29 states chose to lower their drinking ages to 18, 19, or 20. But fear of drunk driving prompted a backlash, culminating in a national minimum drinking age law. In 1984, in a fit of unwarranted faith in the ability of government power to control social outcomes, Congress imposed (that is, extorted the states into imposing) a national drinking age of 21-years old, effectively prohibiting the sale or public consumption of alcohol for millions of young adults.

Since then, studies have shown that alcohol poisoning is going through the roof among college students. Two-thirds of people between 18 and 21 years of age admit to binge drinking within the last month. Twenty percent show all signs of alcohol use disorder (in other words, alcoholism). Death by alcohol poisoning among this age group has tripled since the law.

An entrenched culture of private, secretive drinking has emerged on campus and elsewhere, in places like frat houses, dorm rooms, and nearby rentals, where binging from trash barrels full of random liquor is the norm. It’s no surprise that over half of sexual victimizations among college students involve alcohol consumption. To drink legitimately and in public requires fake IDs, stolen IDs, incessant lying, corruption, and so on.

To understand the magnitude, consider what you know about Prohibition in the 1920s: the speakeasies, crime, bootlegging, corruption, poisoning, violence, and so on. It was a destructive failure that was mercifully repealed. Now transfer that whole culture to modern times and focus it on the least responsible adult age group — 18 to 21 — often away from their parents for the first time. For them, it’s the Roaring Twenties all over again but without adult supervision.

The world of youth drinking is, surprisingly, mostly unknown to adults. It’s all come about since the passage of the 1984 legislation on the drinking age. Consider the hilarious and tragic essay “My Shady Life as an Underage Drinker”:

[quote_box_center]One particularly bad night comes to mind. My friends all decided to go to the local bars one Saturday night. Because a lot of them didn’t have fakes, there was no guarantee they could drink. So of course that meant the night had to start with pregaming at a friend’s apartment. Shotgunning Natty after Natty, taking pulls from handles of whiskey, slapping wine bags and so on. Everyone was pretty much at their limit before we headed out. Or at least, I know I was. The rest of the night was a blur.[/quote_box_center]

If you are in the age group, you understand the language and experience exactly. If you are not, here is a guide. To “shotgun” is to poke a hole in the bottom of a beer can so that the entire contents is forced into your mouth. A “natty” is slang for a “Natural Light,” a cheap beer made by Anheuser-Busch. “Pulls” from a “handle” means to turn a large bottle of liquor upside down and drink it straight. To “slap” a wine bag means to remove the bag from box wine, put the spout in your mouth and drink it straight while moving the resulting bubbles in the bag so that the wine flows more quickly.

The essay continues on to describe wandering a city in a barely conscious state and blacking out on a sofa, waking up to a surprise to find yourself in a place you never intended to be. If it sounds awful and horrible, consider that it does give you a wonderful story to tell. And having such stories has become a rite of passage for this age group. It suggests daring-do and social acumen — just as finding the right speakeasies and bathtub gin in the 1920s was for the general population.

What good would lowering the drinking age do? It would put an end to the perverse culture of secretiveness and abuse that has grown up around underage drinking. It would allow bars and restaurants to become “safe spaces” for college-age students to drink and Uber home if they need to. Proponents will undoubtedly also emphasize the revenue gains for the state that would come from legalization.

But the longer-term gains would be cultural. We could begin to foster a more European-style culture of drinking that promotes responsibility and civilized sobriety. People are more likely to act like adults if you treat them as adults. Prohibition has promoted a horrible childishness with terrible results for everyone.

What about the fears of drunk driving? It really is a separate problem that laws against drunk driving are designed to address. And as for the claim from MADD that raising the drinking age to 21 has saved 20,000 lives, there is no basis for it at all.

No, lowering the drinking age would not create utopia, and it does introduce a different set of problems. The difference is that these problems can be dealt with in the same way that society deals with other problems: family, education, cultural change, liability, and institutional supervision. Society can’t even begin to deal with the problems of youth drinking as long as it exists in dark, hidden corners. The national drinking age has had terrible consequences. As with Prohibition, it’s time we admit it and move on, into the light.



This article was republished with permission from FEE.org

TUCKER: Lower The Drinking Age!

By Jeffrey A. Tucker

It’s rush time for fraternities and sororities on college campuses right now. That means dressing up, networking, socializing, attending parties, and staying up late nights. It also means, whether parents know it (or like it) or not, astonishing amounts of drinking of very potent liquor. One of the most famous “drinks” is called “jungle juice”: trash barrels filled with random spirits and mixtures, consumed one red cup at a time.

Many of these kids are away from home for the first time, able to drink to their heart’s content. A huge culture as grown up around this practice, including a full vocabulary, games, and rituals. Mostly it is just fun, but it can also lead to serious trouble for everyone involved. Let’s not be squeamish: it leads to very un-adult-like amounts of personal abuse and, often, the abuse of others.

Most of these kids have never been socialized in what it means to drink responsibly. They are living for the thrill that comes with defiance. The combination of new freedom, liquor, and sexual opportunity leads to potentially damaged lives.

How do these kids get away with this? In fraternities and sororities, it all happens on private property, not public and commercial spaces, and so campus police can look the other way. Most everyone does.

Indeed, being able to drink with friends, and unhampered by authority, is a major appeal of the Greek system on campus. It’s a way to get around the preposterously high drinking age. Getting around this law will consume a major part of the energy and creativity of these kids for the next three years.

As for everyone else who cannot afford to join, it’s all about a life of sneaking around, getting to know older friends, lying and hiding, pregaming before parties just in case there is no liquor there, and generally adopting a life of bingeing and purging, blackouts and hangovers, rising and repeating. And so on it goes for years until finally the dawn of what the state considers adulthood.

For an entire class of people, it’s the Roaring Twenties all over again.

It’s all part of Prohibition’s legacy and a reflection of this country’s strange attitudes toward drinking in general. The drinking age in the United States (21), adopted in 1984, is one of the highest in the world. Countries that compare in severity are only a few, including Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan.

Most of the rest of the world has settled on 18 for liquor and 16 for beer and wine. In practice, most European countries have very low enforcement of even that. Somehow it works just fine for them.

Country Drinking Age

The consequences of this draconian law have been terrible for American society. Teenage drinking is a gigantic part of American life, all done surreptitiously and mostly without responsible oversight. The market for fake IDs is ubiquitous and diffuse. Everyone in the United States has a story of kids and their abusive habits, their strategizing, their hidden flasks and risky games, their constant maneuvering to do what they know they are not supposed to do.

The drinking-age law would surely be a winner in a competition for the least obeyed law. The notion that this law is accomplishing anything to actually stop or even curb teen drinking is preposterous. Instead, we see all the unintended effects of Prohibition: over-indulgence, anti-social behavior, disrespect for the law, secrecy and sneaking, and a massive diversion of human energy.

People speak of a rape crisis on campus, and whatever the scope of the problem, the fact that women under 21 must retreat to dorm rooms and frat houses to drink puts them all in a vulnerable situation. It’s hard to imagine that consent is really there when people are falling down, passing out, and feeling mortified the next day about what happened. In fact, the law represents a true danger to women in particular because it prohibits legal access to safe public places to drink responsibly, and go home to a safe environment afterward.

There is an organization of college administrators who are fed up. It is called the Amethyst Initiative. Currently, 135 colleges have signed support for a lower drinking age. Their goal is not to encourage more drinking but to recognize the unreality of the current law, and how it has led to perverse consequences on campus.

You know the situation has to be extremely serious to get this risk-averse crowd on board. Their statement reads:


[quote_box_center]A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking” — often conducted off-campus — has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer. By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.[/quote_box_center]

It’s not just about campus. It’s about teens and drinking in general. The law requires them to hide in private places. Such clandestine meetings can lead to compromising and dangerous situations without reliable public oversight.

It’s also about business. Convenience stores and bars, in particular, have been put in a strange position. They have been enlisted to become the enforcement arm of an unenforceable policy, which has meant haranguing customers, inventing new systems for ferreting out violators, turning the servers into cops, confiscating IDs, and creating an environment of snooping and threats in a place that should be about service and fun.

Why isn’t something done to change this? Those who are most affected have the least political power. By the time they figure out the ropes in American political life, they are turning 21 and so no longer have to deal with the problem. In practice, this means that there is no real constituency pushing for reform of these laws. That’s why they have persisted for 30 years without serious pressure to change, despite the obvious failure they have been.

There is some movement at the state level. In Missouri, longtime state representative Rep. Phyllis Kahn has worked for a lowering of the drinking age in her state. She has an interesting take on whether this would mean that the state would have to give up 10% of federal highway funds (the threat that the feds used to force states to raise their drinking ages). In 2012, a Supreme Court ruling on Medicaid clearly stated that the federal government could not coerce states by withdrawing funding to force legislative action at the state level.

Other activists have said that even if the federal highway funding is cut, the increase in revenue from alcohol sales (and decline in enforcement costs) could make up a lot of the difference.

Regardless of the financing issues, current drinking-age law is unenforceable and destructive. The reality is that kids are going to drink. Denying that and imposing ever more draconian punishments doesn’t fix the real problems with alcohol.

What we need is a normal environment of parental and community supervision so that such drinking can occur in a responsible way. Yes, kids will probably drink more often, and yes, more kids will probably try alcohol, but they can do so in an environment of safety and responsibility.

Bringing it into the light, rather than driving it underground, is the best way to solve binging and abuse. Doubling down on a bad rule, rooted in the idea that laws can change human desire, is not a workable solution.

The choice between virtue and vice is a human choice. Relying on the government to make this choice for us disables the social order’s internal mechanisms for bringing about and rewarding responsible behavior. It seems like a paradox, but it is true: The only path toward restoring sanity in teenage drinking is greater liberty.




Reprinted from FEE with permission under Creative Commons Attribution License