The year is 1975. Rhinestone Cowboy is playing on the radio of a woody wagon. Windows down, sounds of drunken laughter fill the evening air. Five knitted sweaters are cruising on the I-93 back toward New Hampshire. A few minutes later, white smoke lingers above a pile of wood, metal, and pieces of tie-dye fabric burning on the side of the road. A few weeks later, five bouquets decorate the shoulder lane. These bouquets are five of thousands mourning the early death of teenage drivers in the 1970s, a significant increase since the previous decade as states began to lower their minimum legal drinking age. In response to this alarming trend, Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbied the federal government until Congress compelled the states to raise their respective drinking ages back to twenty-one. The story of America’s relationship with alcohol is a long one paved with religious extremism, counterproductive public policy, and an unhealthy culture of abuse, fear, and secrecy.
More than 90% of alcohol consumed by college students is through binge drinking, and bad alcohol habits take decades to unlearn. There are right and wrong ways to drink alcohol, but as a result of America’s increasingly “all-or-nothing” attitude toward drinking, we are losing this distinction. The prudish culture of shame and secrecy surrounding drinking has mythicized alcohol and prevented the youth from forming a healthy, non-addictive, non-escapist relationship with drinking. Though well-intentioned, the federally mandated and arguably unconstitutional drinking age of twenty-one is only adding to this problem as it limits exposure and brews overindulgence and fear. So how did we get here? How did we get from the colonial tavern to the frat house basement?
Alcohol has been a part of our culture for millennia. “Aqua vitae” in the middle ages, Dionysus in Ancient Greece, “the blood of Christ” in Communion, kiddush, and havdalah on Shabat, and welcoming the new year with a glass of champagne are just a few examples of our cultural ties to the consumption of alcohol. Despite the country’s puritan roots, early American drinking habits were comparable to Europeans'. The 19th century, however, saw the rise of temperance movements across the country. Their opposition to alcohol was initially concerned with health, but it quickly turned ideological as some Protestant denominations campaigned against alcohol to combat “sin.” Massachusetts was the first to pass a prohibition law in 1838. It quickly became clear that the ban was unenforceable; one barkeeper sold the right to see his blind pig with a ‘complimentary’ drink. Constantly cheated by retailers and citizens, the statute was repealed two years later. This law gives us a glimpse into the fate of nationwide prohibition: a failed attempt to criminalize socially accepted behavior. Despite the failure of the Massachusetts law, similar efforts to ban the purchase and consumption of alcohol swept the country from coast to coast.
During World War One, the successful and influential German breweries lost the public’s support, and their subsequent loss of power paved the way for nationwide prohibition. Thus, in 1920, the 18th amendment was ratified. Of course, prohibition was unsustainable, unenforceable, and increasingly unpopular. It was a liberticidal attempt at shaping alcohol culture through force and federal intervention. Although prohibition lasted a little more than a decade, its ripple effects still crease the American psyche.
After the 21st Amendment was passed, the power to regulate alcohol sales returned to the states who mostly set their respective drinking ages at twenty-one. This was the logical choice as it was the voting age at the time. In the 1970s, however, the draft into the Vietnam War brought into question the voting age, and subsequently, the drinking age. Protesters argued that if an eighteen-year-old is old enough to be drafted and fight on another continent, they are old enough to vote for the politicians sending them off to war, and old enough to have a beer at a bar with the rest of the soldiers. So in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen, and states followed this new standard of adulthood by gradually lowering their respective minimum drinking ages throughout the ‘70s.
The lack of uniformity created a patchwork of laws that encouraged young people who were considered underaged in certain states to procure their alcohol in another state with a more lenient drinking age. As drinking age laws fell, car accidents involving teenagers rose. The numbers were given a face by headlines of teenagers crossing state lines to get drunk and public opinion started to shift. Some states reinstated the previous twenty-one drinking age and eventually, Mothers Against Drunk Driving managed to convince Congress to enact a uniform drinking age across all fifty states. The problem is that according to the 10th amendment, Congress does not have the power to legislate on issues that are not within its constitutional prerogative, moreover, the 21st amendment explicitly reserves the power to regulate liquor sales and consumption for the states. This meant that Congress could not enact a federal minimum drinking age but instead, made a portion of the highway funds allocated to states subject to the states setting their drinking age at 21. In simple terms, Congress blackmailed non-compliant states into submission to the new federal rule by threatening to cut the funds that permit the interstate commerce their economies depend on. In 1984, President Reagen signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act which was challenged by South Dakota. The case went to the Supreme Court which upheld its constitutionality. Justice O’Connor, however, argued, in dissent, that the drinking age had “nothing to do” with highway funds and the law was unconstitutional. Thus to the dismay of young people across the nation, the 1984 act remained the law of the land and this would be the end of our digression into the constitutionality of the drinking age had it not been for Obamacare.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not threaten the states with cutting Medicaid funding if they failed to comply with their demands. The majority agreed that blackmailing states was “unconstitutionally coercive.” Now, it is important to mention that the decision did not reverse South Dakota v. Dole and does not explicitly affect the national minimum drinking age but this decision along with the 10th, 21st, and 26th amendments to the constitution provide a solid argument for the unconstitutionality of a federally prescribed drinking age.
While drunk driving fatalities subsided in the years following 1984, this cannot be explained by the drinking age alone as countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom with much more reasonable alcohol laws saw similar declines in road accidents. What we can thank the 1984 law for, however, is condemning college drinking to secret binging as social gatherings moved from the local bar to the basement. Middlebury College President, John McCardell, Jr. argued that the high drinking age made the problem of drinking on college campuses worse, calling it “bad social policy and terrible law.” The United States is an outlier in the West with both its drinking age and the severity with which law enforcement punishes underaged offenders.
American alcohol culture is generally underdeveloped compared to Europe, where the drinking age is usually set at eighteen or even sixteen. As a result, American youth does not have the early exposure to sensible drinking young Europeans have. Perhaps if we stopped infantilizing Americans who are legal adults in every other sense and allowed them to drink safely in a moderated public setting, a better alcohol culture would follow. A twenty-year-old American can vote, purchase firearms, die in wars, go into debt, pay taxes, and be tried in court as an adult (even for underage drinking) but cannot order a drink. While the irony in this is palpable, the argument against the drinking age is not simply a moral one.
The federal drinking age is a constitutional oxymoron that mythicizes and criminalizes socially accepted behavior, encourages misuse, and produces dangerous externalities. Teens die because their intoxicated peers are too afraid to call for help, the same fake IDs kids use to secure a six-pack of hard seltzer are used by terrorists to take down buildings. While it is highly unlikely that the drinking age will change any time soon as 84% of adults support the current age of twenty-one, it is important to stop and ask ourselves: are the current rules working for us and if not, how do we fix them?