Why is the Legal Drinking Age 21 in the United States?


Did you ever wonder why the legal drinking age is 21? Did you know that the United State’s minimum drinking age of 21 years old is the highest in the world (except for a few states in India)? If you have ever talked to anyone who was born in the 1970s or earlier, they might have told you that they could legally drink under the age of 21. This is true because each state is responsible for setting its own minimum legal drinking age; not the federal government. States are responsible for setting their own minimum drinking age laws based on the concept of federalism – i.e. those laws which are not prescribed to the federal government are reserved for the states. But if each state sets its own minimum legal drinking age, why does every state set it at 21 years of age?

The short answer to this question is because Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (Title 23 U.S.C. §158) which essentially said to the states:
If you (states) want the federal money you’re entitled to for your roads and transportation systems, then you will raise your minimum drinking age to 21 years old.
Some states refused to comply with this request, but by 1988 every state eventually succumbed to the need for more money from the federal government and set their minimum legal drinking age to 21. However, a more accurate answer requires a little bit of knowledge about the history of US drinking laws, understanding the concept of what an "unfunded federal mandate" means, and a discussion on how ‘21’ years of age became the magic number.

Next, we’ll explore what the drinking laws were like for the early settlers of America.

Drinking Laws in the Early Colonies

Evidence of fermented beverages existed as early as 10,000 BC, and may have even predated bread as a staple of a person’s diet. So, drinking alcohol is not a new concept by any means. In colonial America, alcohol played an important role for even the earliest settlers. In contrast to many modern beliefs, the Puritans did consume alcohol. In fact, when the Puritans set sail to Massachusetts on the Mayflower, they carried 42 tons of beer and 10,000 gallons of wine in contrast with only 14 tons of water. However, it should be noted that drinking beer and wine was seen as safer than water because of the unsanitary sources used for drinking water in colonial times.

Shortly after arriving to the New World, the colonists passed laws concerning alcohol. For example, in 1633 the Plymouth Colony prohibited the sale of spirits "more than 2 pence worth to anyone but strangers just arrived," while in 1637 Massachusetts ordered that no person shall remain in any tavern" longer than necessary occasions." The general attitude toward alcohol in the colonies emphasized moderate consumption and an increased concern over the negative effects of drunkenness. But the reality was that colonists drank their fair-share of alcoholic beverages.

By the turn of the 18th century, the government quickly realized that liquor laws could provide a large source of money for the government through the use of taxes, fines, and license fees. During the Civil War taxes were increased on alcohol, and from 1863 and 1868 taxes went up from 20 cents per gallon to $2.00 per gallon. However, there was no attempt to prohibit the manufacture, importation, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages. And there was no national minimum drinking age. But this all began to change toward the end of the 19th century.

Next, let’s take a look at the national movement to prohibit alcohol – The Prohibition Years.

The Prohibition Years (1920 – 1933)

From the late 19th century into the early 20th century there was a lot of change occurring in America. Feminism, unionism, socialism, and progressivism all gained national spotlight. In addition, a national movement promoting the prohibition of alcohol began to emerge (also known as the "temperance movement"). "Prohibition" is generally defined as the prohibiting of something. In the context of alcohol, "prohibition" refers to the legal prohibiting of the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Many religious and conservative leaders claimed that the alcohol industry was ruining the fabric of American families and society. They wanted change, and fought to prohibit alcohol in all the states.

The states each had the power to regulate laws on alcohol within their own borders. So, the best way to get all the states to prohibit alcohol was to try and pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At first, prohibitionists were able to pass federal acts that helped to curb or reduce alcohol use, like the Wartime Prohibition Act of 1918, the Wilson Original Packages Act, and the Webb-Kenyon Act. However, many states still allowed alcohol to be made, sold, and consumed.

Then, on January 29, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, and it went into effect in 1920. The 18th Amendment gave Congress the power to regulate alcohol instead of the states. Through the 18th Amendment, Congress prohibited all people from drinking, regardless of age, and made it a crime to manufacture, sell, possess or consume alcoholic beverages. For the first time on a national level in American history, an adult could be prosecuted and put in jail for consuming alcohol.

The federal government quickly found out that it had its hands full in trying to enforce the 18th Amendment. In other words, many people were breaking the law in not abiding by the 18th Amendment. The institution of the "speakeasy" replaced the saloon. A speakeasy was a club where alcohol was illegally sold and consumed. The Mafia also took part in running many speakeasies. Estimates of the number of speakeasies throughout the United States during the years of prohibition ranged from 200,000 to 500,000 (Lee, 1963: 68).

The confiscation of illegal alcoholic products grew in number almost every year. For example, in 1921, 95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized by the federal government. In 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282,122 in 1930. In connection with these seizures, 34,175 people were arrested in 1921. In 1925, the number of those arrested in connection with alcohol related incidents rose to 62,747, and again rose in 1928 to 75,307. (Source: Internal Revenue, Service, 1921, 1966, 1970: 95, 6, 73).

Prohibition eventually failed because people did not follow the law of the 18th Amendment, and the federal government was overwhelmed in trying to enforce it. On December 5, 1933, Congress officially repealed the 18th Amendment by passing the 21st Amendment. (The 21st Amendment is the only US amendment that was ratified through state conventions, instead through state legislatures.) The 21st Amendment officially ended the years of prohibition in America, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.

The passing of the 21st Amendment gave each state the power once again to regulate alcohol within their borders. In other words, the federal government gave the power back to the states to set their own laws on drinking. Some states chose to be "wet states" (i.e. allowed people to legally drink) while other states chose to be "dry states" (i.e. didn’t allow people to legally drink).

Next, we’ll look at how the Vietnam Era affected states’ laws on alcohol.

The Vietnam Era

The Vietnam War lasted from 1959 to 1975, and US involvement increased in the early 1960s. During the Vietnam Era there was a movement to allow 18 year olds to legally drink alcohol. Proponents of an 18 year old minimum drinking age argued that soldiers who were legally adults and were dying for their country were old enough to legally drink alcohol (many people today still argue this should be the case).

Many states changed their own laws to allow 18 years old to legally drink alcohol during the Vietnam Era. Most military bases, even those in states with 21 minimum drinking ages, would allow active military personnel, while on base, to consume alcoholic beverages at age 18.

Some states allowed people from age 18 to under 21 to drink "three-two" alcoholic beverages. "Three-two" stood for the percentage of alcohol in the beverage. For example, a "three-two" beer was 3.2% alcohol.

Next, we’ll see why every state has raised its minimum drinking age to 21 years old.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984

By the end of the 1970s and the early part of the 1980s, the federal government once again became concerned about the minimum legal drinking age within each state. The government knew that an amendment to the US Constitution would likely not work because of the past (e.g. 18th Amendment failed). So, the federal government came up with an even cleverer way to raise the national minimum drinking age through the use of an "unfunded federal mandate."

President Ronald Reagan signed into effect the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) in 1984. The NMDAA is an example of an "unfunded federal mandate." A "federal mandate" is a federal law that orders the states to do (or not do) something or face the possibility of being penalized in some other way. Federal mandates can also be either be "funded" or "unfunded." A funded federal mandate gives the states money to assist them in carrying out the mandate. An unfunded federal mandate does not give the states any money. In other words, the states have to enforce the unfunded federal mandate without any additional money from the federal government.

Here’s how the unfunded federal mandate of NMDAA works:

Under the NMDAA, the federal government ordered the states to increase their minimum legal drinking age to 21 years old. States were free to say "no," but for any state that did so it would lose approximately 10% of its federal funding for highway public transportation under another act called the Federal Aid Highway Act. Therefore, the federal government mandated the states to pass laws increasing their minimum drinking age to 21 years old or face losing money for their highways. The NMDAA was also "unfunded" because the federal government did not give the states any money to help in enforcing the new minimum drinking age law. A number of states initially said "no" to NMDAA, but by 1988 every state passed a law raising its minimum drinking age to 21 in order to continue receiving all the federal money they were entitled to under the Federal Aid Highway Act.

Unfunded federal mandates have generally been met with much hostility from the states, but they are constitutional in the eyes of the law. This is because the federal government is allowed to "attach strings" to any law/mandate that is passes. In other words, the federal government can say to the states:
You (states) can have this money, but only if you pass this law. Otherwise, we (the federal government) can refuse to give you money and/or take money away from you in other programs.
So, why did the federal government decide on ‘21’ as the magic number for the minimum drinking age? Next, we’ll find out.

The Magic Number '21'

Prior to passing NMDAA of 1984, there were many studies conducted on the effects of alcohol on younger people. Several studies determined that a youth’s brain is not fully developed until around age 21, and alcohol affects youth’s brains differently than it does adults. In addition, many special interest groups promoted NMDAA. Perhaps the most influential special interest group for NMDAA was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD claims that the higher minimum legal drinking age has saved thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of lives.

That magic number ‘21’ has therefore officially been the minimum drinking age in every state since 1988, when Wyoming became the last state to comply with NMDAA. However, there has been some recent opposition to NMDAA. According to the Journal of American Public Health (January 2006), there are 5 states with pending legislation to lower the minimum drinking age in their state.

Are there any exceptions to the minimum drinking age of 21? Actually, there are a number of exceptions, and many of the exceptions depend on what state you’re in.

Next, we’ll explore who can legally drink alcohol under age 21.

Who Can Legally Consume Alcohol Under Age 21?

As previously mentioned, the states have the power over setting the minimum drinking age within their borders. However, all the states have set their minimum drinking age at 21 in order to be in compliance with NMDAA. But NMDAA allows some exceptions to underage alcoholic consumption and/or possession.

Some federal exceptions include:
  • Religious purposes (consumption & possession)
  • Medical purposes (consumption & possession)
  • Employment and private club (possession)
  • Parental exception (consumption & possession)
Under the religious and medical exceptions, underage consumption and possession of alcohol is allowed in certain situations. For example, a minor (i.e. under age 18) is allowed to drink wine at church in a religious ceremony. A minor could also be allowed to consume alcohol based on a doctor’s medical orders.

Under the employment and private club exception, an 18 year old can work at a liquor store, bar, or restaurant and serve alcohol, but cannot consume the alcohol. However, a state’s law can be stricter than federal law and require the person to be 21 years old to serve alcohol.

As for the parental exception, approximately 30 states allow it. Here’s how it generally works:

A minor under the age of 21 can legally drink alcohol if given the drink by his or her parent (or legal guardian), and in the presence of his or her parent. For example, a minor can legally drink alcohol in a restaurant, as long as the child’s parent orders the drink, and gives the drink to the minor without leaving the presence of the minor. However, if the parent gets up and goes to the bathroom and the minor takes a sip of alcohol without the parent being present, then the parent can be in violation of the law.

Some restaurants may say it is not their policy to allow anyone under the age of 21 to drink alcohol, even if the parent gives the alcohol to the child. A restaurant has the right to do this but the parent could just leave the restaurant and go somewhere else. Because of this, most restaurants would not say anything so as to not lose customers.

Therefore, all you parents out there should know that you might be able to legally buy a beer for your high school graduate in a restaurant if your state allows it.

In order to find out how you can tell that a friend or a loved is in need of help for alcoholics, you need to know the signs and symptoms of alcoholism.

Next, we’ll take a final look at why the legal drinking age is 21 in the United States.


As previously mentioned, the United States has the highest legal drinking age in the world besides a few states in India. Most countries allow a person to legally drink alcohol at the age of 18, including the countries of Spain, Russia, Mexico, Ireland, England, and Australia. Some countries like Italy, Greece, Germany, and Portugal allow people to legally consume certain alcoholic beverages at age 16. And some countries have no legal drinking age at all.

In the United States, the states are responsible for setting their own minimum drinking age. But every state has set their minimum drinking age at 21 years old, in order to be in compliance with the unfunded federal mandate of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. It is highly unlikely the US will ever go back to the years of prohibition, but there may come a time when ‘21’ is no longer the magic number.

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