Despite a legal drinking age of 21, surveys of Maryland young people find time and again that consumption of beer and wine far outstrips their use of any other illegal substance. Underage drinking is a widespread problem that will be controlled only through a wide variety of approaches. But legislators have a chance this session to close one especially troublesome loophole by requiring a simple registration procedure for kegs of beer.
Keg parties are a popular way to fuel underage gatherings with alcohol. Kegs provide mass quantities of beer cheaply, encouraging binge drinking, with all its attendant problems. In many cases, young entrepreneurs are earning healthy profits by finding an adult to purchase kegs, then charging a flat fee for each person who enters the party.
A number of other states have found a convenient way to impede this cozy arrangement, simply by requiring the purchaser of any keg of an alcoholic beverage to register and certify that he or she will not permit anyone under 21 to consume the contents. A sticker with the information accompanies the keg until it is returned to the store.
Washington state has reported a dramatic drop in illegal keg parties since a keg registration law went into effect in 1989. One tavern near a state university that had previously sold hundreds of kegs in a month, sometimes 50 or more a day, has now discontinued keg sales altogether. Although underage drinking still occurs, party crowds are noticeably less volatile since their drinking is more likely to center on beer in cans and bottles, which is more expensive.
Liquor retailers have traditionally opposed such bills, and the same is true in Maryland. But the simple form proposed in the Maryland bill requires hardly more work than the information a liquor dealer already collects on kegs. The civil penalties for infractions -- $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for subsequent offenses -- are stiff but not overly onerous for the nature of the crime. They would be assessed on purchasers, not dealers.
Virginia's keg registration law went into effect last year and has already produced a noticeable drop in keg sales. The District of Columbia is implementing a similar measure. Without its own law, Maryland could soon begin to draw underage drinkers from throughout the region.
The proposal under consideration in Annapolis reflects what other states have learned from these laws. It would not put undue burdens on dealers, and it would provide law enforcement officials with a valuable tool to cut down on underage drinking -- simply asking adults to own up to their actions.