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Judith G. McMullen, Underage Drinking: Does Current Policy Make Sense?, 10 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 333 (2006) (Lewis & Clark Law Review ©2006)

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10 Lewis & Clark Law Review 333 (2006)


This Article examines the history of laws and policies regulating consumption of alcoholic beverages by young people in the United States, and examines youth drinking patterns that have emerged over time. Currently, all 50 states have a minimum drinking age of 21. Various rationales are offered for the 21 drinking age, such as the claim that earlier drinking hinders cognitive functions, and the claim that earlier drinking increases the lifetime risk of becoming an alcoholic. While there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that it would be better for adolescents and young adults if they did not drink prior to age 21, research shows that vast numbers of underage persons consume alcoholic beverages, often in large quantities. The Article discusses the question of why underage drinking laws have not been able to effectively stop underage drinking.

Normally, discussions of underage drinking focus on persons under age 21 as one group. This Article breaks underage drinkers into two groups: minors (i.e. drinkers under the age of 18) and young adults (i.e. drinkers between the ages of 18 and 21). The Article goes on to separately analyze the drinking patterns and reasons for drinking. The article concludes that prohibitions on drinking by minors could be made more effective, because restrictions on activities by minors are expected and normally honored by parents, law and society. The Article also concludes, however, that the enforcement of a drinking prohibition for young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 is doomed to remain largely ineffective because the drinking ban is wholly inconsistent with other legal policies aimed at that age group. The Article discusses three areas (health care decisions, educational decisions, and smoking) where persons over the age of 18 have virtually unfettered personal discretion, and applies the reasoning of those situations to the decision about whether to consume alcoholic beverages. The Article also compares the total drinking ban for young adults with the graduated privilege policies applied to drivers' licensing. The Article concludes that the total prohibition of alcohol consumption for young adults is inconsistent with other policies affecting young adults, and this inconsistency, coupled with harms that may come from the 21 drinking age; make the current policies ineffective and ill-advised for young adults between the ages of 18 and 21.

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