Born thirty-five years ago, the Federal Act known as the National Minimum Drinking Age Act or NMDAA is being exploited by the states, as each one has its own legal interpretations of the exception clauses written in the law. The act passed by the United States Congress encouraged each state to raise the minimum age to purchase and consume alcohol to twenty-one or have their annual federal highway funding penalized by ten percent. Every state is enforcing the legal age for purchasing alcohol, yet some are allowing teenagers under twenty-one to still consume or possess alcohol based upon their perception of the law. When President Reagan signed the bill on July 17, 1984, he used the phrase “crazy quilts of different States drinking laws” (American Library Reference). This craziness still exists today and needs to be rectified. Congress has not done its job by allowing this to happen and needs to hold the states accountable by removing the exception rules along with creating tougher sanctions against any state that is not in full compliance with the NMDAA.
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With prohibition ending in 1933 and the 21st Amendment is repealed, the states decided to establish a Minimum Legal Drinking Age or MLDA of twenty-one. The state of New York decided the age of eighteen was old enough for a person to legally drink. This decision made by the state of New York started an issue that still exists today, too many laws by different states on a MLDA requirement. With the beginning of the Vietnam War in the early ’70s, each state began creating their own law as well. By 1982 thirty-six states had adopted their own MLDA ranging from 18-21 years old, leaving only fourteen states maintaining the original requirement of 1933, which was twenty-one.
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, another change occurred, and the term Blood Borders was born. The term basically meant young adults under twenty-one could legally drink across the state line then drive back over the state line to get home. After numerous highly-publicized crashes in which this exact scenario happened, and innocent people were killed; underage drinking and different state drinking laws began to take on a national spotlight in the United States. Congress could no longer deny that underage drinking and the various state laws had become a national issue and needed to be addressed.
In the early 1980s, an organization known as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers or MADD had been established to fight underage drinking among drunk drivers. The organization had been working with Congress to establish a national minimum drinking age; the organization had caught the attention of Senator Frank Lautenberg from New Jersey. He had taken on a campaign to sponsor a bill in the senate regarding the MLDA on a national level. Senator Lautenberg had been fighting the Blood Borders problem with the neighboring State of New York and was determined to change the law. During the same time in the House of Representatives, there was a similar bill being worked on that addressed the same issue. It was sponsored by Rep. Barnes from Maryland and Rep. Howard from New Jersey. Both bills were eventually combined into one bill and passed through Congress. The new law was not perfect in that it created an MLDA of twenty-one while leaving in certain situational exception clauses that had been written into the law. When the law was signed, Senator Lautenberg was quoted as saying “The combination of alcohol, driving, and youth is deadly and it’s time to use the stick, sparingly but effectively” (New York Times). Not all of Congress approved the passage of the bill including Senator Weicker from Connecticut stating, “We’re all driving toward the same goal: eliminate the deaths from drunk driving” (New York Times).
When the NMDAA was finally signed in 1984, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) had won a huge battle in the fight against underage drinking and setting a minimum drinking age that the states would be encouraged to enforce. Their founder Candace Lightner was present that day in Washington D.C. She wore a bright red dress and when asked about the dress and the signing of the bill, she replied, “Red is for courage” and “As much as I complain about the system in this country, I’ve learned that it allows a grassroots organization like ours to change the laws” (People Magazine). Four years earlier, she had lost her daughter to a hit-and-run drunk driver who had recently been arrested for another hit-and-run DUI. Frustrated over different MLDAs in each of the states and the lack of consistency she decided to form MADD and help fight the loss of innocent lives.
The NMDAA law signed in 1984 is the same today with only a change in the percentage that is withheld in Federal Highway Funds from a state not following the required MLDA standard. The law as it reads today has quite a few exceptions. The definition of “possession” is the one exception most states use to establish legal standing to allow consumption or possession by minors reads as, possession for an established religious purpose or when accompanied by a parent, spouse, or legal guardian age 21 or older; for medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, dentist, nurse, hospital, or medical institution or in private clubs, establishments or the sale (Alcohol Policy Information System). Some states have interpreted the law this way to legally serve alcohol to underage drinkers to increase sales in restaurants or private clubs. By understanding it like this, it meant the state was following the NMDAA and was still able to receive the millions of dollars in Federal Highway Funding.
This is exactly what President Reagan was referring too in 1984 with his reference to a Crazy Quilts of laws regarding the different state laws before the bill was signed, yet it still exists in 2019. There is a national law that is supposed to deter states from allowing underage drinking with a ten percent withholding of Federal Highway Funds for non-compliance, yet most states exploit the law with the use of the exception rule written in the bill. In 1987 Congress reviewed the constitutionality of the NMDAA when South Dakota challenged the conditional highway funding as well as violating the Twenty-First Amendment that gives the states the exclusive power to regulate alcohol. In its finding in favor of the NMDDA it cited, Congress did have the power of the purse, (the ability of one group to manipulate and control the actions of another group by withholding funding) in mildly encouraging the states to enact a twenty-one minimum drinking age. It also noted in its finding that all the different states drinking ages created “an incentive to drink and drive”. They cited the law was consistent with promoting General Welfare (South Dakota V Dole,483 U.S. 203 1987). Justice O’Connor in her dissent cited “teenagers pose only a small portion of the drunk driving problem in the Nation” (South Dakota V Dole,483 U.S. 203 1987). Here Supreme Justice O’Connor’s concurring there is a problem, yet teenager’s lives are not worth enforcing the law and the acknowledgment by the Supreme court that different laws still exist in 1987, three years after the signing of the NMDAA. The mere acknowledgment of the issue is concerning making it even more disturbing that it still exists in 2019 and not enough is being done to stop underage drinking.
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Congress needs to look at the states and their creativity in which some have applied the spirit of the law by using the exclusion rule. Thirty-one states have no law prohibiting underage drinking under the Social Host condition. Ten states explicitly prohibited (social hosting) laws for underage drinking. In Twenty-seven states possession of alcohol or consumption by minors is not against the law in the presence of a parent or guardian under the family exception law or being defined by a specific location. Nineteen states say consumption is permitted with or without a specific location. There are Fourteen states where consumption is strictly prohibited. Nine states prohibiting internal possession of alcohol by a minor. Thirty-one states allow people to furnish alcohol to a minor. Twelve states have restrictions on furnishing alcohol to a minor.
This is a small example of the variations some states have created using the exception rule. Congress needs to remove these exception rules in the NMDAA to close the loopholes the states are using to create retail sales. There are only five states that have a No Exception to an MLDA, leaving forty-five states with some type of alcohol possession or consumption allowable by law. “It’s perplexing, what do you tell parents”, said David Hanson, a retired professor of sociology who studied the alcohol policies for over 40 years in an interview with the Washington Post in 2016. Hanson also added, “If a parent gives a drink to a child, does that mean the child is breaking the law but the parent is not” This is a basic fundamental issue which people of normal intelligence should be able to figure out and we have not, that is a serious problem” (Washington Post). Now it is not just the everyday individual having difficulties interpreting these exception rules from state to state. New York, for example, under their State Liquor Authority inexplicably states, if you are under twenty-one years old, it is a violation of the law to possess alcohol with the intent to consume. However, their statue reads, “A person under the age of twenty-one may possess any alcoholic beverage with the intent to consume if the alcoholic beverage is given to the person under twenty-one years of age by that person’s guardian or parents”. The confusion might be done on purpose as the revenue potential for a state that exploits the exception in the NMDAA wording is millions of dollars.
The incentive of a ten percent penalty is not enough of a deterrent for a state to enforce a stringent MLDA of twenty-one due to the clauses that legally allow a state to exploit another part of it. With millions of dollars available from the federal government several states are compliant with exceptions of course. Congress should not allow the system to keep functioning the way it has been since before the signing of the NMDDA. There needs to be action taken by interest groups, citizens, or the general public to Congress letting them know the system is broken and needs to be fixed. If we have this many exception clauses and each state can exploit these exceptions where is the penalty to the states. In this case, there is none and the cliché “Have your cake and eat it too” comes to mind. One specific national standard MLDA needs to be created by Congress eliminating these loopholes in the law being used by the states. Underage drinking is still a serious problem and needs to be addressed to stop further loss of life. On average over 4,000 lives are lost to underage drinkers each year. Drinkers from the age of 12-20 years make up 11% of consumers yearly. On average since 2013 there had been over 119,000 emergency rooms visits of person from 12-20 years old that are alcohol-based or related to drinking, These are serious consequences that come from underage drinking and by allowing the states to exploit the exceptions leads to the potential of these consequences from the ” Crazy Quilts” law of each state. The theory that allowing underage drinking will eliminate the forbidden fruit of drinking before age twenty-one is radicicolous. There are medical reasons that teenagers should not drink until they are at least twenty-one. In 2007 the Surgeon General put out a report indicating underage drinking for 12-20-year-olds total nearly 10.8 million annually. The report also showed underage drinking can lead to developmental as well as emotional problems. There needs to be a concerted effort made by Congress to change these exceptions to save more life’s as shown in the statistic with the passage of the NMDAA in 1984 when underage drunk driving accidents deaths decreased by 15% the following year.
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