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21 to drink: a look at the debate past and present

Posted on September 21, 2020 in Underage Drinking

Back in 1984, phones could only make phone calls and typewriters were still a thing. Prince, Tina Turner and Van Halen sold millions of records (vinyl was a thing back then, too) and the popular movies of 1984 were “Ghostbusters,” “Karate Kid” and “Footloose.”

Though most of that era’s pop culture has faded into history, the decision made 36 years ago to raise the minimum drinking age to 21 still stands today.

Rethinking the drinking age

Twelve years ago, former Middlebury College president John McCardell led the “Rethink the Drinking Age” movement that garnered support from college students and more than 100 college presidents.

In a 2009 “60 Minutes” interview, McCardell said the law mandating the 21-age drinking restriction had been “an abysmal failure” insisting it had not “reduced or eliminated drinking. It has simply driven it underground, behind closed doors, into the most risky and least manageable of settings.”

recent article on the 21 law stated that since the measure was passed, “youth drinking has steadily declined in the U.S.”—with one big exception: college students. Binge drinking among students 18, 19 and 20 years old remains a stubborn problem.

Rethinking it today

Although McCardell’s effort in the late 2000s failed, serious questions about the 21 law remain. A group of Temple University scholars argues that those who credit the measure with reductions in fatal traffic crashes over the years ignore a slew of crucial contributors to the decline: advancements in car safety technology, ubiquitous seatbelt usage, improved road designs, ride-sharing and advancements in surgical techniques.

The Temple group and others also question if criminal penalties are the best means of encouraging safer behavior in the 18-20 demographic. As readers of our Arizona DUI defense blog know, if you’re under 21, it’s illegal in our state to have any alcohol in your possession and illegal to have consumed any alcohol.

Big consequences for “minor” violation

Drivers 18 through 20 can be charged in zero-tolerance Arizona with a “minor DUI” if they have any alcohol in their system. A conviction can result in a license suspension of up to two years and a misdemeanor on your record that can mean fewer college admissions and diminished job opportunities.

At this point, no one knows yet if critics of the 21 law will one day generate a national reexamination of the measure. We know for certain that today underage drinking and driving charges must be taken seriously and addressed immediately.

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