Legislator wants to give lower drinking age a shot

It only takes a quick scan of the public safety section of area newspapers to see what alcohol can do to people, and a state legislator is suggesting — again — that one answer to the problem is to allow more people to drink at a younger age.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the Minneapolis DFLer, is no stranger to filing bills that are dead on arrival at the Capitol, and this year’s bill probably isn’t going to go anywhere. But the issue probably isn’t going to go away, either.

“It’s a very good way to deal with the serious problem of binge drinking, particularly on college campuses,” Kahn tells the Pioneer Press.

She says the idea is to allow young people to learn how to drink socially.

Kahn’s bill doesn’t allow 18 year olds to buy at a liquor store, but Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said he plans to introduce legislation to lower the drinking age for both bars and liquor stores, on the theory that 18 is the age of legal adulthood for everything else.

We tried this once before, during the Vietnam War. We used the same rationale that appears again in the Pioneer Press story.

“If you can go and die for your country but you can’t have a beer, I can’t understand that,” said Andrew Deziel, 18, of Bloomington, Minn.

As I recall the early ’70s, those of us who made that point were doing everything we could to keep from being drafted.

But there is some evidence that a lower drinking age has some impact on the drinking problem.

“In general, the younger people start to drink the safer they are,” said Brown University anthropology professor Dwight Heath, the go-to expert on the matter, it appears. “Alcohol has no mystique. It’s no big deal. By contrast, where it’s banned until age 21, there’s something of the ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome.”

In an editorial this week, the University of Virginia Cavalier Daily says with a lower drinking age, college kids with a drinking problem might be more likely to seek help.

It also makes another true point — kids are going to drink anyway.

If restricting the legal drinking age to 21 doesn’t successfully address the problem of drunk driving, the value of such a law seems minimal. The law effectively punishes under-21-year-olds who don’t drive drunk or even drive at all, and there is no reason to believe those who would drive drunk at 18 wouldn’t do so at 21. Especially since 18-year-olds are given all the markers of adulthood — the right to vote and legal adulthood in court, among others — refusing them the authority to drink is at the very least inconsistent. Thus, this law is ineffective at best. But its negative consequences make it an obvious area of concern for colleges and universities, on whose campuses this issue can even be a safety and legal concern.

Even if Rep. Kahn’s bill passes the Legislature — it won’t — Gov. Dayton says he thinks the current drinking age is fine where it is.

Related: Minimum Legal Drinking Ages around the World.

  • Jack

    We are willing to lose federal highway funding? Only way this works is if the feds change that law.

    • That’s in the story. The 2012 ACA ruling from the Supreme Court makes it illegal to withhold funds to compel states to act a certain way, according to Kahn.

      • KTN

        I have not yet looked, but I doubt the Congress would let that particular leverage technique go away. They use that carrot to compel states to do many things, speed limits, drinking age for example. If Congress no longer has the ability to compel under the Commerce Clause does that mean all those laws are now moot, and the states can go back and set their own speed limits without fear of losing federal dollars. I don’t believe that is the case, but would welcome being proven wrong.

        • As stated above, the Supreme Court (in its ACA decision) made it illegal to withhold funds to compel states to act a certain way.

          • KTN

            Show me the link, otherwise it’s Kahn’s opinion (as stated above). Where in the ACA does it say that Congress let this go (specifically).

          • Google is your friend: :*)

            Page 46 and 47.

            Unquestionably, I think, this would require a court challenge.

          • KTN

            So I used compel when I should have said incentive. As the Chief Justice states, “As our decision in Steward Machine confirms, Congress may attach appropriate conditions to federal taxing and spending programs to preserve its control over the use of federal funds”.
            So Congress does have the power to withhold federal funds if the state is not being compelled to comply, but rather they retain the ability to make a choice.

            As for the drinking age being lowered, maybe. I was 18 for most of my senior year, and the drinking age was conveniently for me, 18. Wasn’t a big thing back then, although we would sometimes go to Adrian’s for a burger and a beer, but beyond that, at least with my friends, alcohol was demystified, and while available, the forbidden fruit aspect was just not there.


          • I think the question becomes “comply with what”?

            ANd this is is why people go into the law, I guess.

            If federal funds are targeted for fixing potholes, I can see conditions on them to be sure that the money actually ends up in a potholes. Those might be considered appropriate conditions.

            But I would imagine the legal argument is whether there’s any relationship between a pothole and the age at which someone can buy a drink.

          • Evan

            It was already challenged and decided in South Dakota v. Dole


          • The ACA decision is a little more recent than the SD vs Dole case.

  • jon

    Most kids are already drinking before 21 any how…

    File under the laws that are dead on arrival, because we already break them regularly, so why change the law to suit reality. (see 35E speed limit in St. Paul)

  • Anna

    I had my first legal drink at the age of 18 at the Galatea Inn in Pensacola Beach, Florida. My family always spent vacation at Fort Pickens State Park (now part of the National Park system, Gulfshores National Seashore) and did so until I was out of college and into my working years.

    Some states, including Louisiana where I grew up, allowed beer and wine to be sold to persons under 21 but they could not buy distilled liquor. I guess the idea was “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”

    I agree with the “forbidden fruit” idea. Kids are fascinated with what they can’t have. It’s been that way for generations.

    I think it would also help with the underage drinking in off campus housing and eliminate a large percentage of date rape and assaults on campus.

    Alcohol lowers inhibition and no two people react to it the same. Women are especially prone to its adverse effects. It has to do with gender. Women simply do not “hold” their liquor as well as men.

    If you can go to war and decide a presidential election at 18, then I say the legal drinking age should be 18.

  • Gary F

    The drinking age was 19 when I was in high school. Being a big kid all you had to do was wear a U of MN shirt to the liquor store and they sold to you. I drank plenty as a high school kid because it was easy to get.

    I now have a 19 year old in college. He wasn’t part of the drinking crowd in high school. Being in sports and band he had to sign the pink form. He told me that there too many cell phone cameras out there to catch you drinking and that’s how most kids are getting busted.

    My worry is we as a society are finally getting a grip on drunk driving and we could lose it. Sure its still a problem, but not nearly socially acceptable as it once was.

    But, if a kid can legally drink at 18 or 19, they should be able to legally purchase a firearm.

    • >>But, if a kid can legally drink at 18 or 19, they should be able to legally purchase a firearm.<<

      They can do that now.

      • CHS

        You have to be 21 to purchase a handgun in MN.

        • The term “firearm” was used, not “handgun” and one can be 18 and purchase and possess a handgun if purchased from a private party. It’s 21 if purchased from a dealer.

  • BJ

    I voted Yes on the poll for drinking at 18. But as a father of a 12 year old and 9 year old, I hesitated.

  • Jeff

    As a teenager my parents gave me a sip or two of their beers on the rare occasions when they had them. As a high schooler I started getting drunk around once a month at parties, staring Sophomore year. I was a “good kid” so I didn’t get in trouble when I snuck vodka in to the all-night alcohol-free post-graduation party at my high school. My first month at college I was getting drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Then, one Friday night, I found that the 7pm DJ at the college radio station didn’t show up. I did my first solo radio show (I had done several previously but with a friend). I found that being a DJ was more fun than drinking. Moral of the story – even if alcohol isn’t a forbidden fruit, kids will still get drunk. Its better to give them a fun alternative.

  • Jeff

    I travel often to Europe and drinking at age 18 is no big deal there. Big however, they have much better public transportation and very strict enforcement of drinking and driving laws. I was driving back to my hotel in Spain one night and got pulled over twice at checkpoints. Note to self: Always take the Autopista and pay the tolls than the back roads.

  • Rex Schultrich

    I’m not sure how lowering the drinking age will cure binge drinking. It simply means that fewer people will get in trouble for serving “underage” persons.

  • jon

    Adult hood happens some where between 16 and 26.
    The age at which you can drive, and the age at which you need to get your own health insurance.
    Between there you get 18 when you are legally an adult, then 21 when you are really legally an adult, then 25 when you can rent a car.

    10 years of being a pseudo adult…

  • Dave

    The forbidden fruit angle is not the only one. There is social pressure in college to drink, regardless of whether it’s legal.

    My parents had beer or wine with almost every meal. As a result, alcohol had no forbidden fruit qualities to me when I went away to college. And at first I frankly did not understand why my classmates would drink such swill every weekend, and act like such rebels when they did.

    I also highly doubt law enforcement would be on board with lowering the drinking age, because it would eliminate a source of revenue (i.e., underage drinking citations). Campus cops would have to find something else to do on Fridays and Saturdays.

  • boB from WA

    Maybe the folks out there including your state legislators should listen to this interview about (and read the book) on the teenage brain. Fascinating information. And as one who started drinking at 16 (as well as doing other stuff), makes me realize why my brain functions the way it does today (which is to say, not very well)


  • Gary F

    Does Phyllis ever propose bills that actually ever have a chance of passing? She is not in my district and I knew nothing about the guy that ran against her except that I wanted him to win.

  • Dan Voltz

    As a former college English teacher, I would take this bill as a mercy–freshmen would finally have to find a topic other than “lowering the drinking age to 18” for their required persuasive essays.

  • John

    The 18 to die, but 21 to drink argument is legitimate. It is an insult to soldiers to devalue that argument. You can lose a limb or die for your country, but cannot participate in an activity that those 3 years older than you cannot. Our politicians can send you to war (obviously on a federal level) but their state level colleagues will deny you access to the very same wine they drink with their dinner.

    Additionally, most studies show that European countries (and Canada) have far lower binge drinking rates than the U.S. Most European countries do not have a 21 year old age restriction on drinking. The activity is socially seen as something that anyone can do and therefore psychologically loses its mystic. As the professor said above, it no longer is a forbidden fruit. The 18 (or maybe 19 to prevent interference with High School) should definitely be a law in this country.

    • No, it doesn’t devalue service at all, to the extent that many of the people making the argument aren’t in the service.

      I might favor a lower drinking age for servicepeople, but it strikes me as an illogical argument that someone who’s 18 should be allowed to drink, because someone else is in the military.

      To me, that’s just piggybacking off the valor of others just so you can buy a sixpack.

      One first step might be to do what Wisconsin does and allow any person of any age under 21 to buy a drink in a restaurant in the company of one’s parents.

      Wisconsin also has the highest binge drinking rate in the nation, btw.

      • boB from WA

        I don’t know if this is still true or not, but when I was in the service overseas, there were vending machines with beer in them in all of the barracks. We were also allowed to purchase beer or wine at the local Base Exchange.

        • My suspicion is that binge drinking and drinking to excess, while it may be related to the “mystique”, involves something more — an underlying culture.

          Why, for example, is Britain the binge drinking capital of the world and Germany isn’t? Both have low drinking age. What is it about the culture.

          Like I said, I’ve been long enough that I got to buy booze the first day I could as an 18 year old in 1973. I can take booze or leave it and I grew up in a dry household.

          I suspect, though, that creating a European culture will take many generations. I wouldn’t get anyone’s hopes up that lowering to 18 is going to have anything but a negative effect in the short term on teen binge drinking and drunk driving deaths.

          If that’s an acceptable negative for the state, so be it.

        • Jack

          The beer machine In Ops at Rhinemein or Ramstein, I can’t remember, but I do remember it was the light at the end of a 6 week tour in SA…back in the 90’s. We saved our quarters for 6 weeks.

      • MikeB

        But that argument is also shorthand for the fact that 18 year olds are legal adults in our society and as such should be able to buy a beer. The driving records are worse for 18-21 year olds but we do not make it illegal to drive a car.

        I agree that there is something about our culture about drinking and drinking and driving, though it is not as socially acceptable as it once was. But that is not directly tied to the drinking age.

        I grew up when the legal age was 19 in MN. But you could buy 3.2 beer in South Dakota.

        Given the ACA ruling I am surprised that a state has not yet tried to roll back the age.

        • I’d also consider raising the enlistment age to 21. :*)

  • Katy

    If anyone is interested in learning more about this topic and lives in the Twin Cities, there is a free event on campus next Thursday called, “How does alcohol availability affect our communities and what can we do
    about it?” featuring Traci Toomey, director of the alcohol epidemiology
    program at the U of M School of Public Health.http://sph.umn.edu/featured-faculty-series/

    Although I don’t believe this is specifically about the drinking age, It’s probably still relevant to the discussion at hand.

  • RRR

    I would be in favor of a federal law that allows active military and veterans to drink alcohol at 18. No other argument for allowing young adults with still-developing brains to drink legally makes sense to me.

    • jon

      I’m unclear, are you suggesting that those that enlist before they are 21 don’t have developing brains?

      I think Bobs earlier suggestion of raising the age to enlist to 21 might actually make more sense, though I’d want to see some research on the effects of military service (PTSD and the likes) on young still developing minds before I commit to anything.
      I can’t imagine that being exposed to active combat duty would be good for a developing mind either… admittedly I’ve no data to back that up.

  • Mo Nex

    “If you can go and die for your country but you can’t have a beer, I
    can’t understand that,” said Andrew Deziel, 18, of Bloomington, Minn.

    – Deziel, do you see the difference between patriotism and intoxication?

  • Mo Nex

    Alcohol affect brain function. Allowing under developed brain a doze of alcohol won’t help developing humans with full potential. The brain also dies as you go old and therefore older folks shouldn’t make critical decisions for younger folks.