The alcohol and liquor laws of each state in the U.S. set the minimum drinking age as 21 years of age. A person under the age of 21 who is caught drinking can usually be subjected to legal consequences. The consequences of underage drinking include misdemeanor charges, which fines and a short jail sentence can punish. There can be exceptions to underage drinking, depending on the state.
The twenty-first amendment to the Constitution clarifies that states determine laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol and that those states can delegate responsibilities to local jurisdictions. It is up to the states, not Washington, to determine the age within their borders. If a state fails to comply with the federal minimum age law, they risk losing federal funds (mostly for highway projects). Not surprisingly, all fifty states complied and preserved their federal funds. In many states, however, there are exceptions to who can purchase, possess, serve, or even consume alcohol.
Exceptions are generally limited to religious activities, educational purposes, lawful employment, parental, guardian, or spousal consent, law enforcement purposes, and medical reasons. Local jurisdictions, states, and federal laws determine who can distribute, buy, possess, and consume alcohol in a specific state because of these exceptions.
A person can tend bar in 30 states if they are 18, in four states if they are 19, in one state if they are 20, and in 15 states if they are 21. Depending on the state, you may need a license to pour drinks. Servers who bring drinks to the table may have a different minimum age from those behind the bar. Furthermore, in North Carolina, you can pour beer and wine at eighteen, but not liquor until you are 21. It quickly becomes confusing regarding the minimum legal age and liquor.
There are only five states without exceptions to the federal law: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. Forty-five states have exceptions, which vary widely and should be discussed further.
Some religions serve small amounts of wine to parishioners as part of a service. It would be illegal for anyone under 21 to participate in these activities, but some states allow worshipers under 21 to participate in these rituals legally.
The most common reason for such an exemption is a culinary school. Leaving enough alcohol in a finished dish when cooking with liquor, wine, or beer can be considered alcoholic. So, if you’re in cooking school and under 21, which many enrolled students are, you can’t legally try the dishes you are learning to make with alcohol. Therefore, some states provide exemptions for those in an educational setting to allow students to study without breaking the law.
Restaurant and food and beverage workers under 21 may be able to purchase alcohol at work. However, they are generally not allowed to consume it. Parents, guardians, and spouses are considered “family members” for purposes of parental consent, guardian consent, and spousal consent. State laws, however, vary widely regarding when a family member can provide or allow someone under 21 to consume alcoholic beverages.
While some states require that the alcohol be provided directly by the family member, others require that they be present while it is consumed. In other states, the family member must provide the alcohol and be present while it is consumed.
State exceptions to drinking laws may also be location-specific. Depending on the state, underage drinkers can only legally consume alcohol at the private residence of a parent or guardian. In contrast, others may only consume it on licensed premises in the company of their parent, guardian, or spouse. Because the laws on parental consent exemption vary widely from state to state, you should check the laws in your area to determine what exceptions apply to underage consumption in the presence of a family member.
In some states, it is legal for underage law enforcement officers to buy and consume alcohol while working undercover. Understandably, this is being done to free up law enforcement efforts. A “medical exception” is usually reserved for products and medications containing trace amounts of alcohol. In states with this exception, physicians may prescribe or administer alcohol to underage individuals as part of necessary medical treatment.
A few laws protect underage drinkers from prosecution when they report or request medical aid for another minor. Currently, seventeen states have exemptions pertaining to underage alcohol consumption when seeking medical care for another underage individual. In some states, you can be charged with “internal possession,” which refers to alcohol inside your body. You may be charged with this based on a blood, urine, or breath test for merely “showing signs of intoxication” even if you do not have any alcohol in your system and did not consume it. In states with internal possession laws, those under 21 must be very careful when it comes to alcohol.
States may also have laws regarding the level of blood alcohol concentration at which someone under 21 is considered intoxicated if they are strict about underage drinking. These levels are often low or zero if you are underage. You do not need a lot of alcohol to raise your BAC to the levels set by many states if you are under 21. The low levels of alcohol consumption and some serious penalties are intended to deter underage drinking.
Florida is known as a party destination. Florida is also known for strictly enforcing the 21-year-old drinking age. Many travel sites report that people got carded for the first time in 20 years while visiting a theme park. It is illegal to possess alcohol in this state for anyone under 21. Underage drinking on college campuses has been a problem in Wisconsin. To curb binge drinking, a state lawmaker tried to introduce a bill that would lower the drinking age to nineteen in 2017. In Wisconsin, underage teens can drink in bars and restaurants with a parent present. Those 18-20 can legally drink with a parent, guardian, or spouse 21 or older in Wisconsin.
It is illegal for anyone under 21 to possess or consume alcohol in Illinois. Underage individuals at home with their parents or guardians are exempt from this rule. However, it does not apply in public places such as bars or restaurants. A bill was introduced in 2017 to allow underage drinking of beer and wine in restaurants or at family gatherings with parental consent, but it did not move forward or pass.
Regardless of these exceptions, all other drinking laws apply to minors, such as sales of alcohol and DUI laws.