From about the time they become aware of alcohol’s existence, every American knows the federal government has set the legal drinking age in the U.S. at 21—except that it hasn’t. Technically, there is no federal law establishing a specific minimum legal drinking age. However, there is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which essentially pressures states into setting their own minimum age limits at 21. Prepare yourselves, boozy 1Ls—we’re taking you to American Booze Law 101.
America originally adopted the minimum age of 21 from English common law, which recognizes 21-year-olds as old enough to vote and become knights (remember kids—don’t drink and mount your noble steeds). The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, transferred responsibility of establishing age minimums to the states. During WWII, FDR lowered the draft age from 21 to 18 in order to ensure there were enough soldiers. While debate began in the ‘40s around lowering the voting age to match, it wasn’t until the Vietnam-era that young soldiers earned a political voice. Congress lowered the voting age to 18 with the 26th Amendment in 1971, and some state legislators took this as inspiration to do the same with the drinking age. So for a brief 13-year period, some 18-year-old residents of certain states could drink freely.
According to Mental Floss, the trouble began when 18-year-olds in states where they still couldn’t drink began travelling across so-called “blood borders” to more neighboring states with more relaxed laws to get booze. Those teens had to drive home after their night out, which led to a number of alcohol-related accidents and fatalities. Mothers Against Drunk Driving led the charge to raise the drinking age across the board and pressured Ronald Reagan and Congress into the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.
The act doesn’t establish an actual minimum though. In order to do that congress and the states would have to repeal the 21st Amendment. So to get around that not-so-insignificant issue, the act threatens to withhold a percentage of highway funds to states that refuse to raise the age themselves. That constitutional workaround sounded iffy to South Dakota, which challenged the law in 1987 in South Dakota v. Dole (which named Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole as the defendant). Unfortunately for South Dakotan drinkers, the Supreme Court upheld the NMDAA on the basis of Spending Clause of the Constitution, which generally grants powers of taxation to the federal government.
Plus, this federal, not-really-federal law also has plenty of exceptions in states that allow younger drinkers to imbibe with the consent of a parent, guardian or spouse over 21, for religious purposes, for medical uses, and/or in the privacy of one’s own home.
So the next time someone mentions you look too young to drink, ask them, “Who says?”