Turning 21 in America is a rite of passage. It represents the day when finally, after so many years of illegally sipping from alcoholic beverages, a citizen can legally order a drink. But why the seemingly arbitrary age of 21? Is there some magical transformation that happens to the human body after a person has been alive for 7,660 days?
The answer is, unsurprisingly, no. Instead of science, the legal drinking age in the U.S. has everything to do with Ronald Reagan, drunk driving, and money for highways.
The map of legal drinking ages shifts over the years, but Americans generally had to be 21 to legally drink in the majority of the country until the 1970s. In 1971, the 26th Amendment changed the voting age from 21 to 18. The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, allows each state to set its own drinking age. So people in some states got to thinking that if you’re old enough to vote (and serve in the military, get married, own a house, etc.) then you’re old enough to drink a beer. Seems reasonable enough, right?
But then came Ronald Reagan, a wave of conservative thinking, and the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. The act says that if a state doesn’t pass a law making it illegal for people under 21 to buy or publicly possess alcohol, then that state will lose 10 percent of the federal funding for state highway money. The idea was to curb drunk driving accidents, which were happening at a higher rate for people between 18 and 20 than any other age group at the time. And while the federal government can’t constitutionally mandate a federal minimum drinking age, thanks to the the 21st Amendment, it can “motivate” states to fall in line by threatening to take away money.
The states changed their rules pretty quickly. But it’s not cut and dry. There are some exceptions to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 that allow underage drinking. For example, people under 21 can drink or possess alcohol for religious purposes; when they are with a parent, spouse, or legal guardian who is 21 or older; when prescribed by a doctor, or in a private club or establishment.
Just because it’s the law doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it. A group of college and university presidents called the Amethyst Initiative started in 2008 to make it known “that 21 is not working as well as the public may think,” according to the Amethyst Initiative website. The group has 136 members, including the presidents of Duke University, Dartmouth, and Ohio State University, and they believe that lowering the drinking age would lead to more responsible decisions regarding alcohol use. Nothing will change until the punishment for states changes, though.
If it weren’t for precious highway money, one of America’s most intense rites of passage wouldn’t exist. Consider this the next time you see a 21st birthday girl with a birthday checklist hanging from her neck, or an overly inebriated bro passed out in the street after way too many birthday shots.