Not me. Back when I began drinking, the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) was still 19. Lawmakers raised it to 21 the year following my 19th birthday, so I could legally drink for a few months, then it became illegal again.
That's the official story, anyway. The truth is, I began drinking at age 16 and the law failed to affect my behavior one way or another. Illegal IDs were common in high school - I had one for a while - or else somebody's older brother would buy a keg from the next county over (Tyler and Smith County were and are "dry") and the kids would get drunk out in a dimly lit cow pasture or at somebody's rural lakehouse. While I'm not proud of it, I recognize that my personal history is hardly unique.
To be sure, such experience from my own callow youth inclines me to sympathize with the call by university presidents this week to lower the MLDA. My high school class was a virtual case study in the law's ineffectiveness. We were yo-yo'ed back and forth between drinking's legality and illegality, yet I knew no one who changed their behavior on that basis. There were no shortage of serious drinkers in my high school class, and for those who didn't drink it was a personal (often a religious) choice, not a fearful submission to state power.
To my mind, encouraging more widespread respect for law and the justice system - and discouraging an oppositional culture that disdains government authority - is the best argument behind lowering the drinking age. It's simply fiction that kids with a car and a driver's license can't get access to alcohol (though it's not as easy as buying illegal drugs, which don't have to come from a licensed distributor). Inevitably, from the perspective of youth themselves, there's a hypocrisy behind the actions of a government that says an 18 year old can vote and join the army but cannot legally drink alcohol. They're held accountable as adults when they screw up, but they're not treated as adults in the most common social settings.
For some, highway safety is the only relevant factor. A survey of studies in 2003 from the Centers for Disease Control estimated:
that changes in the MLDA result in changes of roughly 10% to 16% in alcohol-related crash outcomes for the targeted age groups, decreasing when the MLDA is raised, and increasing when it is lowered.But experts dispute the role of the MLDA in that decrease compared to broader cultural changes. Road deaths due to youth drinking in Canada, for example, declined at similar rates to America even though they didn't raise their drinking age to 21. The group Choose Responsibly argues that:
This downward trend in drunken driving across the industrialized world suggests that something other than a change in the drinking age was at work. Thanks to successful public education efforts, attitudes toward drinking and driving changed over time. The “designated driver,” a term unknown in 1984, indicates such an attitudinal shift.One also notices that cigarette smoking has declined over the same period, which argues that public health campaigns focused on education instead of criminalization - both for alcohol and cigarettes - have significantly impacted behavior. I don't doubt that cultural changes like the introduction of the "designated driver" reduced drunk driving. From my own experience, I doubt raising the MLDA did so nearly as much.
In general, I think we have too many laws and use criminal sanctions to attack what are essentially social problems, which is what's happened with the MLDA. The United States has a more widespread culture of addiction, including but not limited to alcoholism and binge drinking, than most other modern nations, which is why America makes up 5% of the world population and about 50% of global demand for illegal drugs. Setting the drinking age at 21 drives that culture underground during teens' formative years instead of intervening to change it. At least that was my experience.
The corruption from overcrimnalization of social problems affects everyone, not just those who violate the law. Even kids I knew in high school who didn't drink would never have ratted out those who did. The lesson taught by these statutes informs youth that some laws needn't be taken seriously, that it's okay to conceal "crimes" by others from authorities, and most importantly, that one's interaction with the law should begin by second guessing it based on your own values, only complying if you agree with its premise. Whether that's a meritorious view is debatable, but it's undebatably not in the government's interest to promote its widespread adoption.
Defying one law makes it easier for youth to justify defying another, perhaps with more serious consequences. I'm sure if I hadn't needed it to buy alcohol, I'd have never considered getting a fake ID in my teens. But because of underage drinkers, there exists an underground fake ID industry in every state with a massive customer base. That makes us all less safe because, as 9/11 showed, fake IDs can be used for a lot more devious purposes than buying a six pack.
In Grits' sidebar I've added a couple of poll questions for readers: Were you of legal age when you first took a drink, and should the drinking age be lowered? Be sure to register your opinion there in addition to, as always, the comment section below.