The culture of a high drinking age
At a university such as UAA, everyone in class and on campus is a peer. All equal and all the same, but with one definitive number separating us all from entertainment, fine dining, social networks and Anchorage nightlife. 21 and older separates the young adult group into two.
With a bar scene unknown to those under the age of 21, it’s a strange threshold to cross for those embarking upon the milestone birthday. Finally able to join friends down the street at the local bar, the novelty begins to wear off when you look at your bank account the next day with a raging headache.
Finally welcomed to peruse the liquor store you were kicked out of years before when trying to buy a bag of chips, you question how much alcohol you even want to drink as you stare at a bottle of vodka on the shelf. As the excitement of 21 dies down after you shudder at the thought of a seven dollar cocktail, you begin to wonder why you even had to be 21 to experience the local blues band playing downtown at the bar after 10 p.m.
With laws varying slightly in each state, Alaska is known for having stricter policies regarding alcohol than other states. In the state of Alaska, it is difficult to enter a bar at night without a photo I.D. ready, and impossible to see a show at a local bar if it’s past 9 p.m. For musicians trying to break the Anchorage music scene, some may find difficulty being taken seriously and getting gigs, as most venues in Anchorage are bars and most shows happen at night. This difficulty is a reality for 20 year-old Harrison Jennings, a music major at UAA whose age has been a hinderance to his music career.
“Having the drinking age be 21 and over is a social block and is restrictive to opportunity. For people just graduating high school who want to start a band or get into music seriously, have to wait three years to start a band. It’s hard to be viewed as a minor when you’re an adult,” said Jennings, “I’ll admit it I’ve had occasions where I had to sneak in sometimes or at least bring a parent. I can’t always bring a parent, she’s a single mom and she can’t always come. I’m trying to be more independent, but it’s difficult in a band in Alaska trying to get gigs at bars and lounges. There’s room for improvement for employment purposes and there could be more leniency in that area. I almost considered getting a fake I.D., that’s how bad it is, but now I’m 20 so I don’t see the point.”
To combat the lack of venues for young performers more under-21 open mics are popping up around Anchorage. One in particular has been running for over a year and a half now. Hosted at Middle Way Cafe by local musician Jamie Whiteman, an elementary education major at UAA, it offers musicians the opportunity to play publicly without breaking the law.
“I plan to keep hosting them, even after I turn 21. It’s been a great experience. Anchorage is in dire need of places where young people can play music and develop and practice their skills,” said Whiteman. “There are so many talented young people, there’s almost nowhere they can go to meet. Other than my open mic, I know of one other place underage people can play. Matt Vanderbilt has an all ages, all original music, singer songwriter showcase every Saturday night at Organic Oasis, which rocks. Everything in this town happens at bars. It feels bad being criminalized for wanting to express myself and grow as a musician.”
The United States drinking age was implemented after prohibition and the Twenty-First Amendment, and the legal alcohol purchase age was set at 21, the age of majority, which is just a way of saying that’s when you are an adult and can vote. At the same time in the United States, the legal age of voting was 21. The voting age was lowered to 18 with the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971. A majority of the states dropped the age restriction from 21 to 18, during 1972 and 1973, in accordance with the new voting age limit. Twelve states have kept the legal purchase of alcohol age at 21 since the repeal of prohibition and have not changed it since.
In the next decade, many states raised their legal limitation for purchase and consumption in hopes to fight drunk driving and lower such fatalities. In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, requiring that all fifty states set the legal age of possession to 21 years of age, or receive a ten percent cut in federal highway funds. Within four years, all 50 states had integrated the law and the age has not changed in any state since. A controversial subject, the drinking age is three years higher than that of the age to vote in the United States, and is also higher than in most other countries.
Those who have traveled outside of the United States can account for the laissez-faire attitude of the rest of the world towards alcohol. Traveling to over 13 different countries on her semester abroad trip on Semester at Sea, Morgan Brown an early childhood education student at UAA, felt the rest of the world relax about the consumption of alcohol.
“Japan would be considered extremely conservative from an American perspective, but alcohol was readily available everywhere and I wasn’t carded whenever I purchased any,” said Brown. “The only time I was ever carded during my entire study abroad was in London at a Chipotle. I do believe the drinking age is too old. Most kids head to college around 17 or 18. We have an unfortunate issue with deaths surrounding young people and alcohol. I think this is because we treat it so taboo. I didn’t know enough about drinking when I started at 15 and eventually ended up staying at home and drinking with my parents. Which is how I think kids should experience alcohol for the first time somewhere safe, where someone responsible knows what’s going on.”
Similar to Brown’s experience, Madeline Neel a natural sciences student at UAA, spent her first semester of college in France. There she noticed a more relaxed alcohol culture.
“While I was there, I was surprised to see that the grocery stores and mini-marts had shelves stocked with liquor, with no restrictions to who could enter or not. In fact, when my friends and I purchased a couple bottles for our soiree, we weren’t even carded,” said Neel, “During the week, it wasn’t surprising to see a student or two huddled in a quiet corner of the bar studying or reading a book. The outlook on alcohol and the rigid line of ’21+ Only’ was nonexistent. I believe in America, we have so much hubbub about how we should and shouldn’t restrict alcohol and who should and shouldn’t drink it that it makes it more enticing to underage drinkers. Those young adults are fully aware of the fact that they can enroll in the military and be responsible with a loaded weapon, yet not with alcohol.”
An issue that has been typically brushed under the rug, the alcohol purchase and consumption age, is being challenged by three states. Currently New Hampshire is reviewing legislation to let adults 18 and older consume less alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine, if accompanied by someone 21 or older. A bill in the state of Minnesota legislature mimics the same policy. While in California, a ballot that will be voted on in November in hopes to open the consumption of any alcohol to any adult 18 or older. If these states lower the age of consumption and possession of alcohol they will lose up to 10 percent of federal highway funding, but could balance that with an increase in alcohol sales and tax. However the outcome, it will be difficult for the United States to move from the taboo culture of alcohol and its effects of the young adults in this country.