With the introduction of legislature to lower the drinking age in CA and MN, it’s time that this country rationally looks at the national drinking age. Since South Dakota v. Dole in 1987, federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of withholding federal funding from states that do not adhere to the national drinking age. However, the threat of the federal government should not limit political progress at a local level. Lowering the drinking age has social implications beyond just allowing 18 year olds to drink legally. America uses teenage drunk driving to argue the national age, but the pervasiveness of fake IDs already promotes an environment where underage drinking is expected. The discrepancy between the age of college students and the legal drinking age also perpetuates a culture of secretive binge drinking, encouraging irresponsible behavior. Furthermore, with the growing national attention on university sexual assault cases, Americans must not overlook alcohol’s frequent role in these awful situations. It is time to have drinking laws reflect current regional sentiments instead of the national positions of the 70s and 80s.
Proponents of the current drinking age constantly use underage drinking and driving as the main argument for maintaining the national age. However, with an increasing amount of Americans living in urban areas, it is unfair to use drunk driving paranoia to maintain a national drinking laws. Its asinine to say that an 18-year-old should not be able to drink in a major city because there is an 18-year-old in a suburb who relies on driving. Local governments should be able to pass drinking laws that reflect the attitudes of their constituents, and preserving a national drinking age merely prevents politicians from rationally looking at regional drinking ages.
The national drinking age also perpetuates irresponsible alcohol habits through its misalignment with the social reality. When college students show up for their freshman year, they must often complete some sort of alcohol education course. The university expects that the students will be engaging in underage drinking, but the law expects that students will not. Some schools, like the Claremont Colleges, have instituted “red cup” policies where students may drink openly out of red cups as long as their room door is open, but these strategies are rare.
Most schools seek a punitive approach to underage drinking and drinking in open areas, a practice intended to “keep students from consuming alcohol.” In reality, this practice simply confines underage drinkers to locked dorm rooms and off campus houses, where adult supervision is absent and hard alcohol is abundant. Since many Freshman, Sophomores, and Juniors cannot drink legally, binge drinking hard alcohol becomes a de-facto strategy for going to events, resulting in accidents.
This secretive drinking culture also fosters environments for sexual assault. Since students cannot drink in bars and restaurants, they must find find other locations. Fraternities and off-campus residences provide under age students with a place to drink comfortably, but these situations also pervert liability. If something else criminal happens happens at a party, will the host be held criminally accountable? Does an intoxicated, underage student, fearing repercussion from the university, really want to call the police to a party? Students do not treat college parties like “the real world.” This is not a bar where security can handle a pervert or management can see to it that unruly patrons are removed. These are parties where illegal behavior like drug consumption, underage drinking, and serving alcohol to minors is prevalent. This same behavior means that there are a lot of individuals who can find themselves in legal trouble if police are called, reinforcing an attitude where self-protection becomes more important than justice. According to the Annual Review of Public Health, there were 97,000 cases of alcohol-related sexual assault amongst college students 18-24 in 2001, and this number is likely higher due to stigmas against reporting alcohol-related sexual assault cases.
The national drinking age is far out of line with many Americans’ outlooks. Other countries have found ways to implement lower drinking ages, and the United States cannot continue to use our car-culture as the main reasoning for our drinking laws. The US is only creating a nation of pseudo-criminals by maintaining our drinking age, and if we want to tackle systemic issues like binge drinking and alcohol related assaults, it starts with finding a way to instill proper drinking habits in our youth.