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Federal Law

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 USCA §158) requires states to adopt a national minimum drinking age of 21 for “purchase or public possession” of alcohol as a condition for a state’s receipt of federal highway funds. The law has had a sizable effect in that, currently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have a minimum drinking age law (MDAL) that sets the minimum drinking age at 21 (Office of Inspector General [OIG], 1991). Research has found that this change in MDALs resulted in a decrease in the number of deaths of youth associated with drinking and driving (O’Malley and Wagenaar, 1991; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1987; Jones, Piper, and Robertson, 1992); but there is little research on its impact on other aspects of underage drinking (e.g., possession, consumption, purchase, misrepresentation).

State Laws

Basic alcohol control policies are established at the state level. States vary considerably in how they have crafted laws related to underage purchase of alcohol (i.e., purchasing alcohol from retailers), possession (i.e., carrying or handling alcohol), consumption (i.e., the drinking of alcohol), and misrepresentation (i.e., lying about one’s age or using false identification to purchase alcohol) (Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation [PIRE], 2000). For example, according to MADD (2002), 34 states and the District of Columbia have a law prohibiting youth consumption of alcohol, 40 states have a law against the use of false identification to purchase alcohol, and 38 states and the District of Columbia have a law that penalizes an attempt by a youth to purchase alcohol. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have a law that sanctions the actual underage purchase of alcohol (MADD, 2002). Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have statutes prohibiting the possession of alcohol by underage persons. Although not all states prohibit each of these activities, namely, purchase, possession, consumption, and misrepresentation, many do, and the President’s Commission on Model State Drug Laws (1993) recommends that states adopt laws that prohibit all of them.3


Discussion of motor vehicle-related offenses is beyond the purview of this chapter. However, two related laws may be relevant to this chapter. Open container laws make it an offense to possess an open container of an alcoholic beverage in the passenger compartment

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