Don't-drink-till-21 law turns 20

SUN JOURNAL

Alcohol: Older teens often advocate changing the minimum drinking age, but they tend to grow out of it.

July 17, 2004|By Riley McDonald | Riley McDonald,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A college freshman drinks a beer. It is a common scene, but an illegal one: the National Minimum Drinking Age Act - which withholds federal highway funds from states that do not set their legal drinking age at 21 - turns 20 today.

By some measures, not much has changed in the past 20 years. Teenagers, college students in particular, still have easy access to alcohol.

"There is this very deeply entrenched, 150-year-old tradition of students having a beer and enjoying themselves," says University of Wisconsin folklore professor James P. Leary, who specializes in bar and tavern tales. "It's irradicable."

Accepted limit

But eliminate the national drinking age? The ears of many teens might perk up, but most lawmakers hoping to win elections run for cover.

In the two decades since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act went into effect, preventing anyone under 21 from buying or possessing alcohol has become accepted in mainstream society and government.

A rare exception, Colorado Republican Senate candidate Peter Coors - as in the brewery - made national news last month when he publicly opposed the nationwide drinking age.

Advocates of the 21-year-old minimum - a formidable group that includes lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and the influential organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving - say the widespread support they enjoy is borne out by statistics showing the dangers of teen alcohol consumption and the havoc wreaked by drunken drivers.

"Twenty-one was a great victory for MADD and for the nation," says MADD President Wendy Hamilton.

Hamilton has a tragedy motivating her work. Her sister and her sister's child were killed by a drunken driver in 1984. For her, numbers such as a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate that 20,000 more people would have died in car wrecks in the past 20 years were it not for the higher drinking age have extra significance.

Rights and recognition

But another category of deaths has a bearing on the act's opponents: With the number of teenagers being killed in Iraq growing every week, some young adults view drinking age as an issue of rights and recognition.

"It's just a matter of justice," says Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association. He has long been an advocate of lowering the drinking age, but he said the topic has a new immediacy. "We have individuals who are going to war, who are 18, 19, 20, and they can't drink a beer."

During the Vietnam War, a similar push to bestow full rights on teenagers facing the draft led to many states establishing an 18-year-old drinking age.

Few older adults join Koroknay-Palicz in his opposition to the drinking age, although some academics have published research on the effectiveness of European-style drinking - children learn to drink responsibly with parents while living at home.

Today, it is a relatively small group that views itself as holding a stake in the issue. And they quickly age out.

`I don't really care'

"I don't really care now," says 23-year-old Chris Murray, a public health worker in Baltimore. "Four years ago, I might have said differently."

Tensions ran much higher in the early 1980s, when nearly half the states in the country had a legal drinking age of 18, and lawmakers looking to crack down on irresponsible drinking faced an uphill battle against powerful alcohol and restaurant lobbies.

Maryland in the lead

Maryland legislators were major players in the push to establish a nationwide 21-years drinking age. Maryland's drinking age was already 21 during the 1980s, but the legal age in neighboring Washington, D.C., was 18, resulting in what lawmakers deemed a "blood border": teenagers heading to Georgetown or Adams Morgan to down beers and mixed drinks, then driving back to Maryland - often drunk.

"Any big event, they'd go down to Washington," says former Rep. Michael Barnes, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Then driving home ... it was just constant deaths of kids from Maryland."

Barnes' campaign against drunken driving began after he met Cindi Lamb and her daughter, Laura, nearly 25 years ago. The infant from eastern Baltimore County had just become the youngest quadriplegic in the nation.

Five-month-old Laura and her mother, Cindi, were hit by a drunken driver in the fall of 1979. Barnes, then a freshman congressman representing Montgomery County, was incensed by their story. His anger coincided with the growing influence of MADD on Washington lawmakers and, later, the Reagan administration.

Four years after that, there was a national drinking age - as well as a society that used terms such as "designated driver" and slogans like "Friends don't let friends drive drunk."

Teens who support ban

A number of passionate teenagers fully support the drinking ban for those under 21.

"Drinking is not a rite of passage," says Justin Saint Cyr, 19, a rising sophomore at Tufts University. "It's a road to disaster that turns dreams into nightmares."

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