Addiction | 6 min read

Legal Drinking Age in the USA: The Full Truth 90% Don’t Know

Medically Reviewed

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On September 2, 2022

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On June 9, 2019

Legal Drinking Age in the USA
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Alcoholism has been a health crisis for many generations in the United States of America. Statistics show that the American population is unaware of the laws regulating the possession and consumption of alcohol. This is an astonishing figure considering liquor, wine, and beer are regular features in almost any social gathering and every home. The main reason why many people lack awareness may be due to variations in the legal frameworks of different states and the never-ending debate on the legal drinking age in the USA. Different states have slightly different rules regarding consumption, blood alcohol content (BAC), public-serving, and possession of alcohol in various settings.

According to the MLDA act of 1984, 21 is the minimum legal drinking age in the USA. This law applies across all states. It is a criminal offense across all States to possess or buy alcohol using false statements such as fake IDs. The Act permits entities having alcohol to restrict the entry of people below the MLDA with no regard to whether they are seeking entry to drink or not or even find employment. Possession and consumption of alcohol by people under 21 are strictly regulated, hence the need to be familiar with the MLDA and the various laws guiding it in the US.

History of the MLDA.

The history of the MLDA dates back to 1933, when the 21st Amendment gave states the leeway to set their laws regarding alcohol consumption. The States complied with the Amendment, and a majority set the MLDA to be 21. However, Illinois and Oklahoma set their MLDA to be 21 and 18 for men and women, respectively. The two states later adopted 21 as the MLDA in 1961 and 1976. Oklahoma passed 21 as the MLDA in 1976 after a Supreme Court ruling stated that the difference in the MLDA went against the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
When the 26th Amendment lowered the legal voting age to 18, a subsequent amendment by 30 states lowered the MLDA to between 18 to 20, and in 1982, only 14 States still upheld 21 as the MLDA. As States continued to lower their MLDA, reports in the 70s showed that the number of young adults involved in car accidents was high for States with whose MLDA was below 21. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, and this law made 21 the MLDA across all 50 States. Wyoming and South Dakota became the last States to adopt 21 as the MLDA in 1988.

Facts you should know.

Exemptions Made by the Law for Alcohol Consumption by Underage Drinkers. While the MLDA is 21 across the country, 45 states have laws that can allow people under the MLDA to drink, provided certain circumstances are fulfilled. Anyone underage found drinking alcohol and does not qualify for any of these circumstances is deemed to have broken the law and is liable to punishment. These circumstances include the following eight unique situations.

  • For Religious Purposes. 26 States are exempt from consuming alcoholic drinks for religious reasons, such as drinking wine in a church ceremony.
  • For Government Work-Related Purposes. 5 States allow you to drink alcohol if it is in the course of your government work, such as during participation in government research
    or while undercover.
  • For Medical Purposes. 16 States permit licensed physicians to treat underage youth using alcohol.
  • For Educational Purposes. 11 States are open to underage drinking, provided it is done solely for educational purposes.
  • On Private Premises That Do Not Sell Alcohol with Parental Consent. 29 States allow people under the MLDA to drink alcohol in non-alcohol selling property such as a
    private home or private office, provided the parents have given their consent, and a parent or guardian is present.
  • On Private Premises That Do Not Sell Alcohol Without Parental Consent. 6 States allow people below the MLDA to drink in non-alcohol selling premises such as a private home or private office without the consent or presence of parents or guardians. However, it may be against the law for adults to offer alcohol to minors in these states.
  • In Dramshops With Parental Approval. 8 States allow young adults to drink in places like bars and restaurants with parental consent.
  • To Seek Medical Help for Complications on a Friend as a Result of the Two of You Engaging in Underage Drinking. 17 States and DC allow a minor who was drinking but had to call 911 for help for another minor who was also drinking.

Laws Regarding Possession of Alcohol by the Underage

Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age (PAULA) is against the law in the US and is often treated as a misdemeanor offense. Individual states reserve the right to further categorize PAULA according to different state legislation. Anyone under 21 who owns alcohol is breaking the relevant state laws. However, exemptions are made for the eight circumstances outlined earlier.
For those guilty of PAULA, the punishment varies from state to state. Each state is responsible for its alcohol enforcement. Hence, only its State-empowered agencies can process minors. The penalty ranges from a $200 fine to suspension of your driving license to community service or even a mandatory admission or attendance to an outpatient addiction treatment center for a specified period. Punishment often depends on the relevant state legislation. It is important to note that a PAULA conviction remains in your record forever.

Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Legal Limit.
This refers to the possession of alcohol inside your body. They allow law enforcement officers to cite this legal requirement for minors if you display any signs of intoxication or subject you to a sobriety test to get proof, if any exist, of your earlier consumption of alcohol. 8 States require that there be actual proof that is a test of your blood, urine, or breath, while States like Arizona and North Dakota are satisfied with the external display of intoxication.
Blood alcohol content (BAC) is a scientific method to determine the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. They usually show it as a percentage of the weight (milligrams) per unit of volume (milliliters). It shows your level of intoxication. While people aged 21 can have up to 0.08 BAC, it is against the law for people below the MLDA to have any detectable BAC.

Laws Against Underage Youth Drinking or Working in a Premise, Selling or Having Alcohol.
There are laws in place in the US that make selling alcohol to people under the MLDA illegal. Dramshop liability governs premises selling and serving alcohol to minors who later inflict harm to others. This law seeks to protect the public from premises selling alcohol to minors. Dramshop laws are available in about 43 states. They regard supplying alcohol to underage drinkers as a criminal offense in all 50 states. You are also guilty of a misdemeanor if you use a minor to work on your premises selling alcohol.

Underage Drinking in New York

The State of New York has relatively lenient alcohol laws. New York laws allow underage youth to have alcohol when they have a guardian or parent present. They also consent to underage drinking for education, seeking help for a friend, and with parental approval. Internal possession is against the law unless you consume alcohol under acceptable circumstances. New York forbids supplying alcohol to minors and allows minors to serve alcohol on-premise once they are 18. It will enable them to serve alcohol off-premise at any age with supervision for wine and beer and at 18 with supervision for spirits. The state imposes a BAC limit of 0.02 for those under the MLDA, and those violating State laws are subject to fines of up to $50, up to 30 hours of community service, and to attend detox programs.

Underage Drinking in New Jersey

The State of New Jersey allows alcohol consumption and possession in private locations. The state allows guardians or parents to supply alcohol to minors, but the state has penalties for having a party with underage drinking. The state allows one to serve alcohol off-premise or on-premise once they reach 18. Those under the MLDA have a BAC limit of 0.01. If their intoxication level goes higher, they are subject to prosecution and punishment, which may include fines ranging from $250-$350 or visits to an outpatient addiction treatment center for a specified period. New Jersey criminalizes adults providing minors with alcohol; those guilty of such are fined $1,000 or/and face six months in jail.

To Sum Up.

Illegal drinking of alcohol by people under the MLDA of 21 still presents a considerable challenge in the US. NIAAA finds that young people between 12-20 years account for 4% of alcohol consumption. This is despite all the efforts by lawmakers to try to tame alcohol consumption among those under 21. Much more work needs to be done, like making underage drinkers find and attend detox centers programs before underage drinking can be reduced.

Ascendant New York is a substance abuse treatment center and inpatient detox in NYC. We are committed to helping patients from New York and all over the country recover from drug and alcohol addiction. Our New York drug rehab center offers customized rehabilitation regimens to each client because we believe each case is different.

If you or a loved one are addicted to drugs or alcohol and seeking detox in New Jersey or New York, contact us today and let us help you lead your new life with comfort.

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  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Underage Drinking | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Accessed September 2, 2022.
  2. CDC. Minimum legal drinking age of 21 saves lives | CDC. Published April 19, 2022. Accessed September 2, 2022.