Before you answer, consider the following:

At the age of 18, an American is an adult.

At the age of 18, an American man or woman can take a full-time job,

they can rent an apartment,

they can join a union, they can do all the stuff on the Internet that you're supposed to be 18 to do.
they can take that union card and get a job brewing beer, making wine, or distilling liquor,

they can purchase and carry an 18" Bowie knife,

they can get married, or have consensual sex,

they can get a mortgage (okay, they can apply for a mortgage),

they can have children,

they can own and drive a car,
they can adopt children, they can buy a pornographic movie,

they can have an abortion,

they can act in a pornographic movie,
they can buy contraceptives (or get them free in school) they can buy cigarettes,
they can buy a semi-automatic shotgun or scope-sighted rifle, they can take codeine and morphine with a prescription,
they can sell booze in a bar, they can sign a contract,
they can own a bar in some states (including, apparently, PA) they can purchase and use dynamite in some states,
they can become an armed police officer in at least three states, they can work as a merchant sailor on a trans-oceanic ship,
they can shoot pool in public, they can enter a seminary to become a priest or minister,

they can own a business and employ other adults,

they can sue,
they can get a passport, they can be sued,
they can go see any movie in a theater, they can work as a prostitute in Nevada,
they can become volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members, be responsible for expensive equipment, save people's lives, and risk their own, they can play professionally in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, or MLS for more money than you'll see in three lifetimes, Thanks to Ommegang's Larry Bennett for these two additions! (Um...the sports one and the firefighter one, not the prostitute one.)
they can get a pilot’s license at 17, and at 18 they can become a flight instructor, they can join the military and fight, kill, and die for our country (1/5 of all combat deaths so far in the Iraq war were adults...under 21),

they can get a hunting license and legally carry a high-powered rifle,

they can serve on a jury and send murderers and terrorists to death row,
they can (they must) pay taxes, they can be sent to death row,
they can (and should) vote,

they can run for political office, with some exceptions.

If you have any other bizarre additions to this list, send 'em in.

But they can’t have a beer. And it's killing them.

The 21 legal drinking age is a mistake.

That's not just my opinion, either. A growing number of people across the country are questioning the wisdom of the 21 legal drinking age (LDA). Pete Coors made statements to that effect in his senatorial campaign in 2004, and was roundly denounced as being self-serving...rather than better-informed and concerned. Kenyon College president S. Georgia Nugent recently said that virtually all college presidents believe that raising the drinking age has increased the drinking problem on campus rather than decreased it. That includes Dartmouth president James Wright. It also includes Middlebury College president emeritus James McCardell, who wrote in an editorial in the New York Times (Sept. 13, 2004) that "the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law." Fred Blevens, associate dean at Oklahoma University, was quoted in favor of lowering the drinking age in the Oklahoma Daily, saying, "The expectations we have for 18-year-olds are the same that we have for 21-year-olds."

FIVE states have recently or currently have legislation under consideration to lower the LDA to 18. Police chiefs feel that the 21 LDA contributes to binge drinking and is unenforceable. I've got some real stories taken from the news about this horribly misguided law; read them in the right column. I've got some good links to researchers who look at the issue without bias; peruse them at the bottom of the page.

REAL STORY #1 (from the Fargo, ND, Forum, 10/16/05): "Consistent enforcement is key to keeping the problem (of underage drinking) under control, said Lt. Pete Kerns with the Eugene (Ore.) Police Department (a student from ND at OSU died of alcohol poisoning last month). He said a lot of binge drinking occurs on or near the University of Oregon campus. 
The worst time of year for police in Eugene is Halloween night, which has become a time for students to get drunk and riot in the streets. “Invariably, on Halloween, there are half a dozen cases of alcohol poisoning,” Kerns said, adding the frightening tradition of running amok on Halloween ironically sprang from an effort to reduce drinking.
When the city passed a law banning beer keggers from fraternity and sorority parties about 15 years ago, it pushed the drinking into less-controlled environments, Kerns said. Only heavy enforcement seems to keep things in check, he said. “A lot of ticketing goes a long ways to make people think twice before they get bombed,” he said. (It's obvious that this cop sees that "underground drinking" is a bad idea. Wonder if he realizes that the 21 LDA causes a lot more of it than keg laws?) 


Neo-prohibitionists have no real answers.

This whole movement towards discussing an 18 LDA is driving the anti-alcohol forces insane with anger. The Marin Institute has declared that the "Age 21 Law [is] Not Open For Debate" (obviously incorrect, we're debating it right here) and that "No serious person doubts the effectiveness of our national 21 drinking law," even though 'serious people' probably know that there isn't actually a "national 21 drinking law." What we have is a legalized extortion under which federal highway funds are withheld from states unless the states pass a 21 drinking age law. So what we have is actually a patchwork quilt of inconsistent state 21 LDA laws. Typical sloppy reporting from the anti-alcohol side, who have never been afraid to bend or break the truth to serve their puritanical cause.

Not to mention that they are showing a false picture of the movement: "Theres [sic] continuing pressure in the United States, particularly from alcohol industry interests, to reduce the minimum legal drinking age." I don't know of any "pressure" from any alcohol industry interests, about lowering the LDA. They're all scared to mention it!

And now, just as these concerns rise there are conveniently timely "studies" that underage drinking causes brain damage -- no doubt as seen in the rampant epidemics of teen brain damage in Europe and Canada that have been in the news recently... These studies seem to focus on truly heavy drinking by teens (when they deal with humans; most of these studies are rat studies, which do not always translate well to humans)...the same kind of drinking that causes brain damage in adults. (And what about the statement you'll see further down this page: the New Zealand Medical Association found "no clinical evidence to suggest that alcohol was more harmful to an 18-year-old than a 20-year-old."?) Zero tolerance is the prescribed solution to the problem. We've already seen how well that worked during Prohibition.

REAL STORY #2 (from the Boston Globe, 10/22/05): "It could have been any Friday at about 2 a.m. outside Julio's Cafe, a red, ramshackle bar that draws Bridgewater State College students for karaoke and Mexican beer. Spilling onto the street and sidewalk, tired, happy students got an early start on the weekend. Only yesterday, a Toyota Camry came racing down Spring Street and plowed into three friends waiting outside the popular pub near campus for a shuttle bus to take them home after celebrating a birthday.
Jacqueline L. Nilsson, 21, was thrown 30 feet into the air and was dead when she arrived at Brockton Hospital, police and witnesses said. Jaclyne Coleman, 21, was struck, and Stephen G. Bickerton, 21, landed on the windshield and was carried down the street. The driver, Lisa M. O'Connell, 19 -- who prosecutors say had a blood alcohol level of 0.22 (almost three times the legal limit) -- stopped at least 250 feet later, head in her hands, weeping. ...
Police said O'Connell ... had been drinking at an off-campus house party on Maple Avenue in Bridgewater, not far from Julio's, before she decided to drive the 1.2 miles back to her dorm room at Shea-Durgin Hall. Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said investigators are trying to determine who gave alcohol to the underage O'Connell. That person could face charges, he said. ... (Do I have to draw the picture? The legal drinkers were at a bar, and were able to do the responsible thing and take a shuttle home. The underage drinker made bad choices in a bad, uncontrolled environment. Everyone suffers, but no one ever suggests that the real culprit is the 21 LDA.)

Prohibition DOES NOT WORK. Period.

"Everywhere I went I saw confirmation of a lesson humanity should have learnt in 17th-century Constantinople (where the sultans tried, and failed, to ban coffee); Enlightenment London (where Parliament, overstocked with brewers, strove to ban imported gin); and jazz-age Chicago (where forbidding alcohol corrupted city hall and empowered gangster such as Al Capone): ban something, and it only becomes stronger, costlier and more coveted than ever before. I've returned from the experience, my liver weakened but my eyes opened, with a renewed disdain for the simple-minded - and simply bad - idea we call prohibition." (Taras Grescoe, from his forthcoming book The Devil's Picnic: Everything the Governments of the World Don't Want You to Try...if that sounds as interesting to you as it did to me, you can buy it from Amazon by clicking here.)

Another point the neo-Drys bring up is the lives supposedly saved by the 21 LDA. In fact, there's a study out now about what happened when New Zealand lowered their drinking age to 18. From Join Together's website: "The study, published in the January edition of the Journal of American Public Health Association, found that the rate of alcohol-related traffic crashes with injuries among males increased 12 percent for 18- to 19-year-olds and 14 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds in the four years before and after the law changed. For females, the rate increased 51 percent for 18- to 19-year-olds and 24 percent for 15- to 17-year-olds." 

That looks pretty damning. But what about the numbers on traffic deaths in 20 to 24 year olds during the same period? If it's similar to the U.S. experience 20-odd years ago, those numbers will have dropped. Sad but true: there seems to be a lethal learning curve with driving and drinking. But an 18 LDA vs. a 21 LDA apparently only shifts the curve. Perhaps we should look at a more pragmatic approach, and try education about drinking and education about driving, and the choices both represent. As James McCardell said about lowering the LDA in his NYT editorial (see above), "This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we'd raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the problem."

Representative James Splaine has proposed a change to New Hampshire law that would allow anyone 18 or older to drink if they could show a valid military ID. He admits that such a law's passage would be contingent upon a waiver from the Federal 21 LDA Extortion Act. Reaction from neo-Drys was predictable. Ginger Blanchard, president of the state's MADD chapter, said, "I don't feel at 18 a person is responsible enough to be able to drink alcohol and know how to drive." Was that the purpose of Rep. Splaine's proposal, to make sure that 18 year old soldiers could get boozed up before hopping behind the wheel? Of course not. Splaine replied, "Do I want to see anyone 18, 19, or 20 years old get drunk? And then drive? Of course not. Nor do I want anyone 21 years of age to do that." Of course not. Neo-Drys know that the only reason anyone drinks is to get drunk. This misperception clouds every bit of thinking they do. Drinkers are de facto criminals in their eyes, all drinkers.

The United States is the ONLY country in the developed world with a de facto 21 LDA. There is no compelling evidence that shows a causal link between the federally enforced imposition of the 21 LDA and any decline in underage drinking, alcohol-related deaths, or underage drunk-driving deaths. Studies of the subject uniformly ignore any other factors (such as safer cars, lower speed limits, seat belt laws, safer roads, sobriety checkpoints, stiffer drunk-driving laws, or societal changes) that may have something to do with such declines. They also ignore any possibility that the 21 LDA has actually encouraged binge drinking by putting 20 years of age-and-under drinking underground.

Funny thing is, even underground, moderate drinkers tend towards smart behavior. Check out this story from the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled "College Students Can Drink Responsibly if Left Alone, Study Finds." Yup, just what it says, from a study involving 28,000 students, done by the American College Health Association. Yes, that's the same ACHA praised by CSPI Alcohol Policies Project head George Hacker for its "real leadership on behalf of college students and millions of other young people. ACHA is committed to the health and well-being of college students and to protecting students from the risks of underage and excessive drinking." Couldn't have said it better myself, George.

REAL STORY #3 (From the Manawatu Standard (New Zealand); where the hell is Manawatu?) New Zealand lowered their drinking age to 18 not too long ago, and now there's a lot of talk of raising it back to 20 after a modest rise in drunk driving deaths in the affected age group (12 additional deaths were reported in the 15-19 age group over a year) and some highly publicized drunken violence. This talk is grasped by the anti-alcohol folks in the U.S. as a direct and crushing answer to any attempt to lower the U.S. LDA. But they only present one side. Not here.
I give you the comments of a police area commander in New Zealand, Pat Handcock, who says that "raising the age will not curb underage drinking...and that 'our generation' has to take responsibility for setting the drinking culture of today's young people. 'What we have to do is actually encourage a community culture that really lives the slogan that we've got to be careful with alcohol, because it can cause a lot of problems,' Inspector Handcock says. 'I don't think our generation and generations before mine have actually educated our children very well in terms of personal safety and alcohol. We've set the culture that binge-drinking is okay.' 
Inspector Handcock is of the opinion that 18 is a suitable age to drink legally and he questions whether raising it is
'fixing the problem or just hiding the problem. I think the reality is that at 18 you can vote, at 18 you can get pressed into the military, so I think the real issue is responsibility and I don't think moving it to 20 is going to make a difference.' 
New Zealand doctors come to their senses:
These reports, from TVNZ and the NZ Herald, are the most hopeful thing I've heard in quite a while on this subject.

A move to raise the drinking age has suffered a blow, with New Zealand's largest doctors' group withdrawing its previous support. A parliamentary select committee is considering the Sale of Liquor Amendment Bill, which would restore the legal age to buy alcohol to 20. The Medical Association opposed lowering the age to 18 in 1999, and until recently backed a plan to raise it to 20.  

But chair, Dr Ross Boswell, says that doctors have changed their minds. Boswell says their information is that there is no particular benefit for raising the drinking age. In fact, the NZMA found "no clinical evidence to suggest that alcohol was more harmful to an 18-year-old than a 20-year-old." Boswell says the problem of under-age drinking should be tackled by better enforcing the law on underage alcohol sales and a tighter ban on advertising (they favor a pre-10 PM curfew on booze ads). 

The head of the Alcohol Advisory Council says raising the legal drinking age will not solve New Zealand's entrenched drinking culture. ALAC CEO Mike McAvoy says it opposed lowering the age to 18, but says it is a distraction from the need to address New Zealand's drinking culture. McAvoy says ALAC has focused its latest campaign on changing peoples' approach to drinking.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand police were fear-mongering. They told the committee "there was concern that increased drinking in 15-and 16-year-old girls was leading to more of them becoming crime victims" and "there had been a rise in alcohol-related offending since the drinking age was lowered." Then they admitted that there was no data to back up the "concern," and that the "rise" was based on data that was being collected differently, to different standards, since the drinking age went down. Thanks for muddying the issue, boys.

Want more? TVNZ continued coverage today with the latest numbers on teen drinking deaths: "Teenage accidents since the drinking age was lowered have come down - part of an overall trend. [Just like it is here.] However Otago University researchers say the numbers probably would have come down much further had the drinking age stayed at 20." So these researchers say it's "probably" a good idea to raise the drinking age, while the MDs say there is "no clinical evidence" to support that. One of the two is probably right...

9/6/06: From Radio New Zealand: Associate Minister of Health, Damien O'Connor, says political reality means New Zealand's legal drinking age will not be put back up to 20 years. The minister was speaking at an addictions treatment conference in Wellington on Thursday. Mr O'Connor - who voted against lowering the legal age to 18 years - pre-empts a Parliamentary review of the drinking age. He says New Zealand is 'stuck' with the legal drinking age at 18, and those at the conference should realise political reality meant it would not return to 20.


A Modest Proposal

"The thing that would help me most is bar codes on driver's licenses. New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, that's where we have our biggest problem," Bellisario said. "Bar codes, that's what they should be fighting for. Not for this stupid sticker -- this puts a burden on me. It's going to take time and it's a nuisance." -- Patsy Bellisario, owner of Mellinger's Distributing, Semple Street, Pittsburgh, in a November, 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on a proposed keg registration law for Pennsylvania.

Well-said, Ms. Bellisario. Why continue to waste time, effort, and treasure on an idea that demonstrably does not work? Indeed, why do we continue to waste time on any number of efforts that don't work? We already did this, we already learned these lessons, back in Prohibition. So here are a few ideas that we can try. 

1. Lower the drinking age to 18. Shift enforcement and education efforts to high school-age kids. Shift enforcement budgets to education. Stop criminalizing college age drinking that we obviously are unable to stop. "The expectations we have for 18-year-olds are the same that we have for 21-year-olds." Give them the responsibility to go with the expectations.

2. Give licensees quick, bullet-proof ways to ID and incentives to use them. Bar codes or magnetic strips on all licenses, linked to state databases, costs subsidized by government. And if one anti-alcohol weenie cries about costs or privacy, remind them that "if it saves one life, it's worth it." Cash rewards for seized false IDs. 

3.  Raise the driving age to 18, with a year-long permit period. You'll have no more underage drinkers driving. You'll save energy. You'll see your kids more often during an important part of their development. You'll save lives, because we're apparently much more successful at keeping unlicensed drivers from driving than we are at keeping underage adults from drinking. 


Questions that need answers:

Why are adults from 18 to 21 years of age treated as second-class citizens in this one respect, when in so many others they are expected and required to live up to society's responsibilities?

Why does so much of the discussion of underage drinking focus on college students? Do adults cease to exist if they don't go to college? Why do college students have more problems with alcohol excess (because studies show they do)?

Why are there no solid statistics on underage drinking? Why can't you find out how much of the total "underage drinking" is done by 18 to 20 year old adults? And why aren't booze industry groups doing their own surveys and polls on the issue?

Why is there virtually no effort to teach adults of any age to drink responsibly?

Don't be afraid to ask these questions. Don't be afraid to discuss this issue. And of course, don't be afraid to disagree with me, with MADD, or with the Supreme Court. I'm going to get you the facts to make the discussions. I'm going to find some links to people who are asking the questions. I'm truly concerned that the 21 LDA is a mistake with potentially lethal consequences.

Unbiased Sources

The following links have either information or discussions of this issue without either anti-alcohol establishment rhetoric or commercial interest. They are a refreshing contrast to the ridiculous statements from PIRE, CASA, and CAMY.

STATS: Underage Drinking. The Statistical Assessment Service, or STATS, is a non-profit, non-partisan organization (affiliated with George Mason University and the Center for Media and Public Affairs) that attempts to right misunderstandings in the press due to bad science and to act as a resource for journalists. The linked document is on their sub-site, Alcohol, and it's a beautifully balanced look at most of the major arguments for and against an 18 LDA. Definitely worth a read. And while you're there, check out the home site: they've got more great myth-debunking than you can shake a flat earth globe at.

Alcohol: Problems and Solutions: Legal Drinking Age. Dr. David J. Hanson has well-referenced positions on the 18 LDA, and his wider site aims to provide a real-world resource for folks who don't buy the anti-alcohol coalition's malarkey.