End Neo-prohibition

Commentary in a recent issue of Time magazine (p. 22, or this link ) urges that the drinking age in the United States be lowered from 21 to 18. Author Camille Paglia believes that it grossly violates civil liberties to make it illegal for adults to purchase or publicly consume alcoholic beverages when they can vote, serve in the military, make contracts, and marry at 18. Ms. Paglia argues further that it is counter-productive to achieving the ends for which is was enacted.

I agree.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984 (I wonder if anyone noted the irony in the year of passage) mandated that the federal government withhold 10% of highway funds allocated to a state that did not raise its drinking age to 21 by 1986. Though some states resisted for awhile, every one ultimately complied. The loss of 10% of federal highway funds was a sufficient stick, apparently. This law, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court as within the Constitutional spending power of Congress, is an affront to federalism while being a mere feel good measure with little practical effect.

Ms. Paglia argues that the drinking age in the vast majority of European and other industrialized nations is 18 (in Germany it is 16). That is interesting, but what other countries do is hardly a reason to change our laws. More to the point, there is no evidence that reducing the drinking age has stemmed alcohol abuse among those between 18 and 21. On the contrary, it has encouraged underground use and binge-drinking.

The occasional bust of late teenagers for drinking or publicly possessing liquor probably fails to scratch the surface of that behavior. Ask any college student and they will tell you that drinking alcoholic beverages is common among their peers. It always has been and always will be. I have heard it that statistics showed dramatic increases in the death rate from alcohol related deaths after 1973 when the drinking age was lowered in most states. Anecdotal evidence may be suspect among researchers, but statistical evidence can be manipulated to support one’s position also. Accordingly, that the age should be lowered is not swayed by either.

Here is one personal anecdote. I recall when I was a police officer in Dallas in 1973, the Texas drinking age was about to be lowered to 18 on September 1. A friend of mine asked me if we were ready for that day to arrive, implying that drunken mayhem was about to become widespread. I replied that no particular plans were in place. It turned out that none were necessary. There were fewer, if anything, alcohol related incidents among the 18 – 21 group subsequent to the law coming into effect.

I have read reports that human brains, especially the higher functions like addiction propensity and impulse control in males, continue to develop into the mid to late twenties. If that is valid, it is an argument for raising the voting age (which cannot be done without a Constitutional amendment), contracting age, military draft age (if we ever have a draft again), and, especially, the driving age. Anyway, the issue should be one for states to address, not the federal government.

Alcoholic beverages, like other intoxicating substances, firearms, and especially automobiles, are yet another thing that can be misused. An attempt to remove the thing abused will not stop the abuse, unless the thing can be completely eliminated. That is neither possible nor desirable. Our focus should be on the abuser, not the thing.

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