Lowering the Drinking Age: Three States’ Newest Efforts

By: Zach Evans

Member, American Journal of Trial Advocacy

The national minimum age for alcohol consumption and purchase is 21 years of age. Several exceptions to the general rule apply in various states. Many states allow for 18-20 year olds to consume alcohol on private premises that do not sell alcohol with parental consent and presence. A few states even allow alcohol consumption on private premises without parental consent. Other common exceptions include the consumption of alcohol for religious, medical, or educational purposes. California, New Hampshire, and Minnesota are currently considering removing certain underage drinking restrictions. Minnesota and New Hampshire proposed House bills while California proposed a ballot initiative and public vote if the necessary signatures are acquired.

States are leery of taking progressive actions in lowering the drinking age due to the provisions of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (“the Act”). Per the Act, non-compliance with the national drinking age of 21 can result in the loss of 10% of federal highway funding to the state. Some believe this federal response to state action would be a violation of states’ rights, citing NFIB v. Sebelius. In NFIB v. Sebelius, the United States Supreme Court held that the federal government could not withhold funding for the purpose of controlling the actions of the states.

Minnesota Representative, Phyllis Kahn, proposes two bills. The preferred bill would allow 18-20 year olds to drink any kind of alcohol only in bars and restaurants where 18-20 year olds could easily be cut off under the discretion of the business. The other bill would allow underage drinking in bars and restaurants, but only with accompaniment by a parent, guardian, or spouse who is of legal drinking age. Supporters of the bill highlight the national binge-drinking problem on college campuses and want younger adults to drink responsibly and socially similar to the structure in Europe.

In New Hampshire, a proposed bill led by Representative Max Abramson would allow underage drinking in the presence of someone who is at least 21 years old. Supporters cite similar reasoning to that in Minnesota – promotion of responsible education about alcohol and prevention of dangerous and costly binge drinking.

In California, Terrance Lynn (“Lynn”) is currently collecting signatures for a public ballot vote to occur in April 2016 in support of lowering the drinking age to 18. Lynn has 180 days to collect 365,880 signatures. Lynn argues the drinking age should be lowered to 18 because “18 year olds have nearly every burden and privilege of adults . . . except the right to drink alcohol,” referring to the 1984 Act as a “misguided aberration.”

While there is certainly agreement that the abuse of alcohol is dangerous and costly, there remains much debate regarding the most appropriate method of addressing the problem.