In 1984, the U.S. passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, establishing 21 as the nation’s minimum legal drinking age. This controversial decision made the U.S. an outlier, with one of the highest drinking ages of any developed country. This law remains divisive, with arguments on both sides claiming to prioritize the safety of underage kids. Many argue that having the chance to drink for the first time while living at home allows teenagers to learn how to drink more responsibly, while others maintain that the restriction helps create a safer environment for teens, reducing drunk-driving accidents.
The contentious nature of this law is reflected in many state-specific loopholes that allow underage drinking under certain circumstances. It turns out that a whopping 45 states and Washington, D.C., have exceptions to this law for special cases like medical use, religious practices, educational classes, or the presence of a permitting parent or guardian.
The laws for possession, consumption, and internal possession of alcoholic beverages vary greatly within the U.S., and each state has its own unique set of exceptions to these laws as well. These rules can be hard to keep track of, so VinePair laid out each major exception, and the states to which they apply, below.
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In line with concerns that children should be able to drink alcohol before moving out of their homes, drinking under the supervision of a guardian is among the most common exceptions. However, the circumstances under which the exception applies can vary greatly depending on the state. Some states require that the alcohol is provided by the family member, while others stress that the family member must be present at the exact time it is consumed. What constitutes “family” can change state-by-state as well; in some states, only a parent or legal guardian can provide alcohol, as opposed to others where any family member or spouse over 21 is a viable supervisor.
The laws also detail where this can take place, with some specifying minors can only drink in a parent or guardian’s private residence. Other states allow consumption in any private location or even in bars or restaurants, like in Texas.
Religious and Medical Exceptions
Alcoholic beverages are a common part of certain religious services, and 26 states currently permit minors to drink as part of religious ceremonies.
Underage drinking is also permitted in specific medical circumstances. Many of these exceptions were created to allow children to take medications that contain trace amounts of alcohol, like cough syrup.
This category also encompasses states that do not prosecute underage drinking if the minors are requesting medical assistance. In some states, minors can be charged with internal possession, referring to the alcohol already in their system. Some states have specific exceptions in place to help protect minors so they can seek medical assistance without the threat of being arrested.
Educational and Business-Related Exceptions
In some educational settings, alcohol is hard to avoid. For example, culinary school students often have to cook with alcohol and taste their ingredients. Many states make exceptions for students in culinary school or other educational institutions that require the consumption of alcohol. In California, for example, students can drink at any qualified academic institution that has an established degree program in hotel management, culinary arts, enology, or brewing.
There are also some loopholes in the law when it comes to work-related possession and consumption of alcohol. Purchasing or possessing alcohol for business purposes is accepted in eight states. Arguably the most interesting legal exception to the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) law is for those working in law enforcement. In Hawaii and Michigan, underage agents working undercover are allowed to purchase and/or consume alcohol if it applies to their current assignment.
|State||Exceptions?||Type of Exception|
|Connecticut||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical, Business|
|Georgia||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical|
|Iowa||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical, Business|
|Louisiana||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical, Business|
|Michigan||Yes||Religious, Medical, Educational, Business|
|Mississippi||Yes||Family, Serving in the Armed Forces|
|Nebraska||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical|
|Nevada||Yes||Family, Medical, Business|
|New Jersey||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical|
|New Mexico||Yes||Family, Religious|
|New York||Yes||Educational, Medical|
|North Carolina||Yes||Educational, Medical|
|North Dakota||Yes||Religious, Medical|
|Ohio||Yes||Family, Educational, Religious, Medical|
|Oregon||Yes||Family, Educational, Medical|
|Rhode Island||Yes||Religious, Educational|
|South Carolina||Yes||Family, Religious, Educational|
|South Dakota||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical|
|Utah||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical|
|Washington||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical, Educational|
|Wyoming||Yes||Family, Religious, Medical|
Source: ProCon.org, Updated Aug. 22, 2022