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Why is the Drinking Age 21?
by Ethan Trex - August 26, 2008 - 12:41 AM

 
 
 
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Presidents of some of the country’s biggest colleges and universities have come out in support of the Amethyst Initiative, which is pushing a proposal to reconsider the national drinking age of 21. The group contends that the current policy hasn’t actually deterred alcohol abuse among college-age students; instead, it’s forced these young people to imbibe in a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking,” which might sound familiar to, oh, just about anyone who attended college, has seen a college-themed movie, or has heard the word “college.” So if this policy might not be the best way to deter alcohol abuse, how did we end up with a drinking age of 21 in the first place? In short, we ended up with a national minimum age of 21 because of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. This law basically told states that they had to enact a minimum drinking age of 21 or lose up to ten percent of their federal highway funding. Since that’s serious coin, the states jumped into line fairly quickly. Interestingly, this law doesn’t prohibit drinking per se; it merely cajoles states to outlaw purchase and public possession by people under 21. Exceptions include possession (and presumably drinking) for religious practices, while in the company of parents, spouses, or guardians who are over 21, medical uses, and during the course of legal employment. That answers the legal question of why the drinking age is 21, but what was the underlying logic of the original policy? 
Did lawmakers just pick 21 out of a hat because they wanted college seniors to learn the nuances of bar culture before graduation? Not quite. The concept that a person becomes a full adult at age 21 dates back centuries in English common law; 21 was the age at which a person could, among other things, vote and become a knight. Since a person was an official adult at age 21, it seemed to make sense that...
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