For many Americans, turning 21 is a cause for celebration. After 21 long years, the State believes you are now responsible enough to drink beer with every other adult. This high of a drinking age is meant to protect young people, but it ultimately does more harm. Even though prohibition ended almost a century ago, it continues to this day for those under 21. The ban on purchasing alcoholic beverages for those under the legal age is just as ineffective today as it was in the 20’s and 30’s.
I recently turned 21, and certainly enjoyed my first legal drink. But, like many young people, this was hardly my first experience with alcohol. I was never one to get hammered at a party, I liked to enjoy a drink from time to time, but I knew plenty of people who did drink heavily and did so frequently. The age limit never stopped me from having a drink now and then, nor did it stop the people I knew from gorging themselves on any booze they could find. Alcohol prohibition harms these individuals the most.
To understand why, we must look at how alcohol is treated by the rest of the world, compared to in the US. For the vast majority of the world, the drinking age is 18. The United States is an odd case because not only is it one of only 12 nations with a drinking age at 21, it is also the only western nation in this category. Ironically, the rate of binge drinking, especially among those under 21, is higher in the US than the rest of the western world. While Europe consumes the most alcohol on average, younger people in Europe simply do not experience the kind of alcohol abuse like we do in the United States.
The more alcohol is restricted, the more dangerous the culture surrounding it becomes. We are all familiar with how popular parties are among the young people. With the vast majority of these young people only being able to obtain alcohol in these upbeat, celebratory environments, they are practically stuck in an atmosphere that encourages binge drinking. We can find a similar trend in drug use. Since the war on drugs began, drug abuse and drug-related deaths have increased. Rather than using and purchasing these narcotics in a public setting, prohibition drives drug use underground, which makes it more dangerous. The culture that prohibition creates is more deadly than the substance itself.
A common rationalization used to justify the high drinking age is brain development. However, I would say this is more of a reason to lower it.
Once an individual is an adult, the state should not be making someone’s health choices for them. Tobacco use is the highest cause of death in the US, yet we understand that smoking is an individual’s health choice, not a decision for the state.
Despite the personal responsibility aspect, brain development is still not a convincing argument. Merely drinking alcohol does not hinder development. Rather, it is the abuse of alcohol that causes underdevelopment. According to the CDC, underage drinkers drink more alcohol per occasion than adult drinkers, and mostly in the form of binge drinking.
Because young people are expected not to drink at all, rather than to drink responsibly, they don’t know how to handle alcohol when they get it. Much like with the drug war, underage drinkers must find their alcohol in alternative settings like college parties, rather than obtaining their drinks in a safe environment. This environment encourages young people to drink a lot in a relatively short amount of time, since their next fix may not come for some time.
If brain development were the issue, imposing a high age limit is likely contributing to under development. For the safety and health of young people, the only logical answer is to lower the drinking age. It is not unreasonable to make an adult legal on all fronts. While consumption may temporarily increase, the abuse of alcohol will dwindle, likely to rates similar to Europe. Lowering the drinking age will help end the culture of abuse in which so many of our young people find themselves.
Thinking we can legislate away an issue that is ultimately about personal responsibility will do more harm than good. We should not make decisions for adults that they should be making for themselves. Either we believe the individual is sovereign and should be responsible for their actions, or we believe that this is the responsibility of society. Making this a societal issue rather than a matter for the individual is inconsistent with liberty and everything we believe in as a nation.