Should the national drinking age be 18?

Beer on tap for 18 year olds? Not in the U.S. Photo: CC by  SA 3.0

Beer on tap for 18 year olds? Not in the U.S. Photo: CC by SA 3.0

After reading an article on the conundrum of fake IDs – whose possession I don’t condone – I was left pondering another barrier, the minimum legal drinking age of 21. This has been the muffled debate of our times, mostly because of powerful, well intentioned advocacy groups, and financial strong-arming by the federal government.

Following Prohibition, the U.S. age for alcohol consumption was 21, and controlled by individual states. In the 1970s, as the age of universal suffrage fell to 18, two-thirds of the states decided on the logic of responsible citizenry, and dropped the drinking age to 18, 19, and 20, depending on location.

However, the reasoning behind legislation doesn’t necessarily follow any parallel. In the case of 50 states wrestling for control, differing laws made the affair cumbersome from one border to the next.

Also, multiple studies found that keeping the drinking age at 21 decreased the chance of fatal traffic accidents – a good reason to leave things alone.

By the early 1980s, after intense lobbying by organizations with a stake in the welfare of young adults, many states returned to their former positions. In 1984, the Uniform Drinking Age Act pinned the final holdouts to the mat. It mandated reduced federal highway funding for states with lower drinking thresholds than 21.

Clearly, money talks. Today, most political leaders won’t openly support lower minimum drinking ages, although many admit privately they’d be open to the idea, for many reasons.

Chief among them is the above-mentioned logic of responsible citizenry. Being an adult in the eyes of the law should, for the most part, bear some consistency.

The argument swirls around the age of emancipation, 18, when all parental controls legally end. Privacy officially becomes sacred, and along with it, a number of commanding rights.

The first is the right to vote. Voting is the most sacrosanct act in a representative democracy. To cast a ballot guarantees us a say in choosing our civic leaders. When we extend these implications from a local school board all the way to the president, then what we concede is that someone at 18 has the wherewithal to choose the leader of the free world.

Another is the right to marry, though in many states this can be done under 18. While older folks might “know better,” we’ve anointed anyone who is 18 with the immense discretion to choose a life mate, and start a family. Except they must drink fruit juice at their wedding reception. (Please, don’t get me going on babies making babies – that’s for another time)

Finally, the toughest sticking point for many: at 18, Americans gain the right to enlist in the military and rightly or wrongly, march off to our nation’s wars and kill or be killed. As a society we train young soldiers to be combat leaders and entrust them with the lives of other young soldiers under fire.

We’ve done this since the birth of our nation. We haven’t, however, figured out how to let those same troops have a brew with their bunkmates after surviving that hell. Except maybe in Wisconsin, where the law states that someone who has earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart can throw back a cold one if Mommy or Daddy get it for them. Oy.

Something just doesn’t add up with these examples, and they don’t end there; this theater of the inane is endless. That said, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve vacillated on the subject for the same reason as many others: personal experience.

Even in writing this piece I’m terribly conflicted. I’ve seen and felt the results of drunk driving to friends and family. It isn’t pretty. It’s a gut check. And it makes the issue emotional rather than built on the cool logic stated above – even if, in this case, we’re only addressing adults over 18, not minors (who can legally drink in many foreign countries).

Nevertheless, there are many horrors in life. With deepest respect and empathy for those who have lost loved ones: drinking between ages 18 and 20 isn’t one of them.

The opportunity for someone over 21 to be a fool has been demonstrated plenty, as has having your act together by age 18. Understanding that many laws are born of passion and not reason, it’s never too late for an open debate on the subject – nationally.

Just don’t hold your breath. This isn’t a juicy conservative or liberal issue, and few on either side will stick their necks out to address it. Apparently, at 18, taking a bullet for God and country is a far easier drink to swallow.

What do you think?

Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.