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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Why is There a National Drinking Age of 21 in the US?

On Behalf of | Apr 19, 2013 | Underage Drinking

I am a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, a town with a disproportionately high number of 18 to 20 year olds, thanks to Penn State University. Given how many students I represent in underage drinking cases, I am often asked why there is a national drinking age of 21 throughout the whole United States. It’s the question that seemingly all young people irate over an underage drinking citation have on their minds, when they are quite aware that their age peers in other countries can legally drink. After all, the “Dancing Queen” in the ABBA song was allowed in a disco at the age of 17!

When Alcohol Prohibition ended in 1933, most states enacted a 21 drinking age, however, when the voting age was reduced to 18, many states then also lowered their drinking ages to 18. Prior to the 1980s, there was just not as much public awareness about the dangers of drunk driving, and people of all ages drove drunk back then a lot more than they do now. The phrase “one for the road,” literally meant having another drink before hopping in your car. People also rarely wore seatbelts back then either, and cars were not nearly as safe as they are now. Consequently, many teenagers were being killed or killing other people in DUI accidents. This led groups like MADD to lobby for a national drinking age of 21.

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which was then signed into law by Ronald Reagan. The law did not create a national drinking age of 21. Congress lacks the authority to pass such a law, because the states, rather than the federal government, make laws concerning health, welfare, safety and morals. Although Congress does not have the power to set a national drinking age, it does control how federal funds are spent. Thus, the law mandated a 10% reduction in federal highway construction money to any state, which failed to enact a drinking age of 21 by 1988. Most states readily complied, but not every state agreed with the law.

South Dakota challenged the constitutionality of the law and took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987). In a 7 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the law as a proper use of federal power. Since no state wants to raise taxes just to have a lower drinking age, all 50 states now have a drinking age of 21.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA. A high percentage of his case load includes underage drinking, public drunkenness, and other alcohol related offenses.

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