The argument over the legal drinking age will once again arise in Minnesota, and along with it, issues of states’ rights, citizenship, and public safety.  Four members of the state legislature will introduce a bill to lower the age to 18, the age when people have to face consequences of illegal actions in regular court and not in the juvenile system.  However, the rationale applied in this case is a little odd:

State lawmakers in Minnesota are bringing forward a plan to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18, and even allowing those sixteen and seventeen to drink in bars in accompanied by their parents.

There are at least four state representatives who are backing the plan.

Tom Hackbarth, a Republican from District 48A said, “I think that bars and restaurants are having a difficult time right now with the smoking ban that went into place. I think with economic times the way they are, I’ve never opposed the drinking age being 18.”

I’ve heard a lot of arguments against the prohibition on under-21 adults, but never an economic one.  Is this Minnesota’s own stimulus plan?  In fact, the economics of the argument are usually considered a wash, since one of the points made against the ban is that teens buy alcohol on their own anyway.

This has always been a tough question for me.  On the one hand, it’s hard to argue that someone should get tried as an adult for illegally purchasing or consuming alcohol for being a minor.  If full citizenship and responsibility come at 18, then the government should not impose limitations on those between that age and 21 for behavior that would be perfectly legal for all other citizens. I’m also opposed to the federal government dictating state policy on this issue, as it has ever since Ronald Reagan rejected the states-rights argument and signed the Uniform Drinking Age Act in 1984.

The safety issues also seem compelling.  Advocates for the higher age claim with some justification that the uniform imposition of the age limit reduced alcohol-related deaths.  However, at the same time, state and local governments began cracking down much harder on drunk-driving offenders, giving them longer sentences and putting some teeth in deterrence.  Did both have an effect, or did the latter make the former seem more effective?

When we traveled to Ireland, the Mathemagician (then 17) delighted in the freedom of the pubs, where anyone can get served as long as parents are present.  He pointed out on many occasions during those two weeks the wisdom of the Irish in having a sensible policy on alcohol access, very similar to what Minnesota proposes now.  The Irish are less convinced of their own wisdom these days:

Over 80% of adults believe that it is easy for people under the age of 18 to access alcohol in pubs and off-licenses, new research from the HSE indicates.

The preliminary results of the research indicate that the vast majority of adults – 91% – agree that underage drinking is a problem in Ireland today, while 50% feel there is nothing they can do to stop young people from consuming alcohol. …

The campaign hopes to increase awareness among adults about the extent of underage drinking, the ease of access which young people have to alcohol and the benefits in delaying the age at which they start drinking.

“We now have a problem which impacts negatively on so many areas of society, from increases in sexually transmitted infections, public order offences and young adult suicide”, commented Dr Joe Barry of the HSE’s population health directorate.

It’s a tough call.  I’m tempted to stick with what we have rather than experiment with a rollback to 18, especially given the winter road conditions and the fact that I drive these roads at night on occasion.  I’m certainly not convinced by an argument that it will stimulate the economy, which is a very strange basis for making this decision.

Update: Great debate in the comments, which mostly supports a lower drinking age.  I do sympathize quite a bit with “old enough to fight for your country, old enough to drink”.  A question for our military readers: can 18-year-olds legally drink on base?

Tags: Minnesota