Reagan’s Dirty Trick and the Drinking Age

By Chris Cronin

Elm Staff Writer

At 21, the United States of America has the highest legal drinking age in the world. With the exception of Sri Lanka and some portions of India, the only other countries that share such a limit are either American dependencies, like Guam, or countries with a sizeable Muslim population. The latter keep the age high for religious reasons. But what is America’s excuse?

It is not a product of America’s status in the world—the widespread proliferation of a lower drinking age in Europe and East Asia demonstrates that developed, first-world democracies are comfortable serving alcohol to young people. It is certainly not because Americans do not trust young adults. Eighteen-year-olds can enlist, legally purchase a firearm in many states, purchase cigarettes in any state, and drive. Why do we trust young people to drive, shoot and smoke, but not to legally drink?

After Prohibition was repealed, states were given the right to regulate the sale of alcohol, including setting a state drinking age. In 1971, when the 26th Amendment reduced the voting age to 18, many states lowered the drinking age to match.

For over a decade, the majority of states set the age at 18. But in 1984, under pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Reagan administration spearheaded the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Unable to constitutionally pass a national drinking age at a federal level, legislators instead resorted to a dirty piece of political maneuvering. The act mandated that states would forfeit 10 percent of their federal road funds if they set the state drinking age to lower than 21. Federal road money is some of the most valuable federal funds a state receives, able to be legally spent on virtually any project. Unsurprisingly, all 50 states and the District of Columbia soon followed suit.

MADD’s rationale for supporting the higher drinking age was based on the assumption that it would reduce instances of drunk driving. But in Britain and Germany, both countries with higher per-capita alcohol consumption and a lower drinking age, instances of drunk driving are substantially lower. Both countries have much harsher drunk driving laws, such as likely incarceration for a first offence in Britain, and maximum blood alcohol content of 0.00 in Germany for those under 21. Why our laws are comparatively weak is baffling.

America’s high drinking age has not done enough to restrict dangerous drinking. In 2008, over 100 college presidents signed a letter supporting the Amethyst Initiative, a movement to rethink alcohol policy. The group alleges that the high drinking age has led to a culture of clandestine binge drinking, which is hard to regulate and poses a serious safety risk to young people’s health. College students are routinely punished for underage drinking, sometimes even after calling an ambulance for a friend. Alcohol laws have pushed young people out of bars, where bartenders can cut off customers who appear overly intoxicated, call taxis for those who are too drunk to drive, and send belligerent patrons home. At many clandestine parties, these protections do not exist.

It’s time to re-open the debate on the drinking age. This campus, like virtually all college campuses across America, is filled with voting-age students who routinely drink illegally. The Reagan administration’s dirty trick has done little to restrict young people from drinking but much to harm their safety. The next time you have a drink, remember why it has to be in secret—and that nothing will change unless we stand up and call for it.


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