National Minimum Drinking Age Act

National Minimum Drinking Age Act
Great Seal of the United States.
Full title National Minimum Drinking Age Act
Enacted by the 98th United States Congress
Effective July 17, 1984
Public Law 98-363
Title(s) amended 23
U.S.C. sections created 158
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Senate as S.AMDT.3334 to H.R.4616 by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on June 26, 1984
  • Passed the House of Representatives on April 30, 1984 (voice vote)
  • Passed the Senate on June 26, 1984 (voice vote) with amendment
  • House of Representatives agreed to Senate amendment on June 27, 1984 (unanimous consent)
  • Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on July 17, 1984
Major amendments
Relevant Supreme Court cases

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 U.S.C. § 158) was passed on July 17, 1984 by the United States Congress as a mechanism whereby all states would become thereafter required to legislate the age of 21 years as a minimum age for purchasing and publicly possessing alcoholic beverages. Under the Federal Aid Highway Act, a state with a minimum age below 21 would be subjected to a ten percent decrease in its annual federal highway apportionment.[1]

While this act did not outlaw the consumption of alcoholic beverages by those under 21 years of age, seven states and Washington D.C. extended its provisions into an outright ban. These states are: Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. The minimum drinking age is a state law. However, most states still permit "underage" consumption of alcohol in some circumstances. In some states, no restriction on private consumption is made, while in others, consumption is only allowed in specific locations, in the presence of consenting and supervising family members as in the states of California, Colorado, Montana, New York, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The act also does not seek to criminalize alcohol consumption during religious occasions; (e.g. communion wines).



Prior to 1984, states were allowed to choose their own legal drinking ages, and the drinking age varied from state to state. Shortly after repeal of Prohibition in 1933, most states set their purchase ages at 21 since that was the age of majority at the time, but a few set their limits lower. Most of these limits remained constant until the early 1970s. From 1969 to 1976, 30 states lowered their purchase ages, generally to 18.[citation needed] This was primarily because the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 with the 26th amendment, and nearly all states lowered their ages of majority as well. In spite of this, twelve states kept their purchase ages at 21 since repeal of Prohibition and have never changed them. From 1976 to 1983, several states voluntarily raised their purchase ages to 19 (or, less commonly, 20 or 21), in part to combat drunk driving fatalities. Most states still kept the age at 18 or 19 well into the 1980s.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan set up a commission to study the drunk driving problem in the United States, and one of their 39 recommendations was a national, uniform drinking age of 21. This recommendation was influenced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which had been founded by Candy Lightner in 1980. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) wrote the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. By 1988, all 50 states and DC were in compliance, but Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (and Guam until 2010) remained at 18 despite the loss of highway funding.


In July 2008, over 100 college presidents across the United States went public with the call for a reconsideration of the drinking age law. This movement by college presidents across the nation is referred to as the Amethyst Initiative, named after the purple gemstone amethyst which in Ancient Greece was believed to ward off drunkenness if used in drinking vessels and jewelry.

People under the age of 21 or more likely to engage in dangerous "binge" drinking. Binge drinking is commonly described as consuming 5 or more drinks in one sitting, more than once a week. According to a large national survey, 22 percent of all students under 21 compared to 18 percent over 21 years of age are heavy drinkers. A more accurate survey conducted only among college students who consume alcohol reveals that of the 66 percent of heavy college drinkers, 32 percent of them are underage. [2]

The Conservative Party of New York opposed the passage of the law in 1984, but according to The New York Post no longer considers the effort to bring back drinking by those under 21 worthwhile.[citation needed] In 2001, according to the same article, New York State Assembly member Felix Ortiz introduced a bill that would lower the drinking age back to 18. He cited unfairness and difficulty with enforcement as his motivations.[3]

In 1998, the National Youth Rights Association was founded, in part, to seek to lower the drinking age back to 18. NYRA has worked on legislation in many states and continues to be an active force in opposition to the drinking age act. In 2004, the president of Vermont's Middlebury College, John McCardell, Jr. wrote in The New York Times that "the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law" that has made the college drinking problem far worse.[4]

The state government of South Dakota questioned the national drinking age, suing then-Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole in the case South Dakota v. Dole. However, in the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the power of Congress to withhold federal funds in pursuit of national policies, such as the drinking age, was upheld.

However, the constitutionality of individual state enactments of the requirements of the Act on the basis of equal protection and substantive due process have never been tested in a court of law. Some, such as the National Youth Rights Association, argue that these laws reduce adult citizens between the ages of 18 to 20 to a subordinate and inferior class of beings by denying them the same protections of the law guaranteed to all other adult citizens. If these state laws in compliance with the act were struck down on fourteenth amendment grounds, it is likely that the entire National Minimum Drinking Age Act would itself be ruled unconstitutional as well, because it is presumably unconstitutional for the Federal Government to ask that states violate the Constitution.

See also


  1. ^ Title 23 of the United States Code, Highways. (PDF file, see Section 158)
  2. ^ Engs, Ruth. "Drinking Practices and Patterns Among Collegians", November, 2003.
  3. ^ Lovett, Kenneth. "LET KIDS START DRINKING AT 18: BROOKLYN POL." The New York Post, May 1, 2006.
  4. ^ The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: What Your College President Didn't Tell You

External links

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