In 1984, the Federal Government passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and established 21 as the national minimum legal drinking age ("MLDA") age. It was phased in over a few years, and today all 50 states require one to be 21 or older to purchase alcohol. So, then why discuss the drinking age by state?
What Makes a Drink "Alcoholic?"
To be considered an alcoholic beverage, the federal government has established that a "drink" has 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol in it. Therefore, one "drink" is: 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor (40% alcohol proof).
The twenty-first amendment to the Constitution clarifies that the states determine the laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol, and the states can delegate responsibilities to local jurisdictions. The states, not Washington D.C., have the power to set the age as they see fit within their own borders. But there are consequences if a state does not comply with the federal minimum age law; they risk losing federal funds (mostly for highway projects). So, not surprisingly, all fifty states did what was needed to comply and preserve their federal money. But there are exceptions on who can buy, possess, serve, or even consume alcohol in many states.
State exceptions to the national MLDA usually involve the following: religious activities; educational purpoes; lawful employment; parental, guardian, or spousal consent; law enforcement purposes, and medical reasons. These exceptions have resulted in a complex set of laws where local jurisdictions, states, and federal regulations determine who can distribute, buy, possess, and consume alcohol in a particular state.
For example, in 30 states, you can tend bar if you are 18, in four states at nineteen, in one state at twenty, and 15 states at 21. But you may need a license to pour drinks depending on the state. The minimum age for the servers bringing the drinks to the table may differ from those behind the bar. Plus, in North Carolina, you can pour beer and wine at eighteen, but not liquor until you are 21. As you can see, it quickly gets confusing when it comes to the minimum legal age and liquor.
There are only five states with no exceptions to the federal law: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. Forty-five states have exceptions, and these exemptions vary widely and are worth further discussion.
It is common in some religions to serve small amounts of wine to parishioners as part of a service or ceremony. It would be illegal for anyone under 21 to participate in these activities, but some states have exceptions to allow worshipers under 21 to legally take part in the rituals.
Culinary schools are the most common reason for this type of exemption. When cooking with liquor, wine, or beer, it is possible to leave enough alcohol in a finished dish to be considered alcoholic. So, if you were in cooking school and under 21, and many enrolled students are, then you are not legally allowed to try the dishes using alcohol that you are learning to cook. So, some states have exemptions for those in an educational setting to allow students to study without breaking the law.
Those under 21 working in the restaurant or food and beverage industry may be able to purchase alcohol for their work. However, in most cases, they are not allowed to drink it. For parental, guardian, or spousal consent, in general, a "family member" is a parent, legal guardian, or spouse. But the laws from state to state vary widely on when a family member can provide or allow consumption by someone under 21.
Many states require that the alcohol be provided by the family member directly, while others require that the family member be present while it is consumed. Other states specify that the family member must provide the alcohol and be present while it is consumed.
A state's exception to the MLDA may also be location-specific. Some state laws only allow those underage to legally consume alcohol at the private home of a parent or guardian, while others only allow for the consumption of alcohol on licensed premises in the company of their parent, guardian, or spouse. States like Texas allow minors to drink in places licensed to sell alcohol, like a restaurant or bar, if their parent is present and permits it. Because the laws vary widely on the parental consent exemption, you should confirm the laws in your area for what exceptions are allowed for underage consumption in the presence of a family member.
As part of undercover work or research, it is legal in some states for an underage individual employed in law enforcement to buy and consume alcohol. This is an understandable attempt to allow these law enforcement efforts to function unencumbered. Typically, a "medical exception" pertains to certain products and medications containing trace amounts of alcohol. States with this medical exception may also allow underage individuals to consume alcohol when a licensed physician prescribes or administers it as part of necessary medical treatment.
There are also some laws in place to protect underage drinkers from prosecution when they are reporting or requesting medical aid for another minor. There are currently seventeen states with exemptions related to underage alcohol consumption when seeking medical aid for another underage individual. You can be charged with "Internal Possession," which refers to alcohol inside your body in some states. You may be charged with this as a result of a blood, urine, or breath test. In some states, for merely "showing signs of intoxication" even if you are found with no alcohol in your system and were not seen consuming it. If your state has internal possession laws, those under 21 must be very careful where alcohol is concerned.
Some states are strict about underage drinking and may also have special laws to determine the blood alcohol concentration ("BAC") at which someone under 21 is considered intoxicated. If you are underage, these levels are often low or set at zero. In general, if you are under 21, it does not take much alcohol to bring your BAC to the levels set in many states. The low levels along with some serious penalties are established to deter underage consumption.
Overview of Four Separate States
The MLDA laws for Florida, Wisconsin, California, and Illinois are summarized in Table 1, and additional tidbits are provided for each. It is no secret that Florida is a known party destination. But Florida is also known for strictly enforcing the MLDA of 21. You will find people stating they got carded for the first time in 20 years while visiting a theme park on many travel sites. It is illegal for anyone under 21 to possess alcohol in this state. Wisconsin has experienced issues with underage binge drinking on college campuses. In 2017, a state lawmaker tried to push a bill that would drop the drinking age to nineteen in an attempt to curb binge drinking. That bill did not pass, but underage teens can presently drink in a bar or restaurant with a parent present in Wisconsin. Under Wisconsin law, those 18-20 can legally drink with a parent, guardian, or spouse 21 or older.
Along with Oregon, California has the nation's oldest MLDA 21 laws. In 2016, there was an initiative to lower the drinking age to 18, but it did not gain much support. However, underage drinking is allowed in the presence of a responsible adult. It was done to help parents teach their children the importance of moderation when drinking. Illinois is strict and enforces the law against possession or consumption of alcohol by anyone under 21. There is an exception for an underage individual who is at home with a parent or legal guardian. But it is not applicable in public places like bars or restaurants. In 2017, lawmakers considered a bill to allow underage drinking of beer and wine in restaurants or at family gatherings with parental consent, but it has yet to move forward or pass.