Louisiana Drinking-Age Ruling: a Backward Step

Reagan-era national age-21 law could be undermined

Claiming "unreasonable" age discrimination, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that the state's drinking-age law violated the equal protection clause of the Louisiana Constitution. Effective March 8, the day of the court's ruling, the state's legal drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. College freshmen (and even high school seniors) can now pop into their local liquor store and legally buy whatever they want.

News of the decision spread rapidly through the ranks of traffic-safety and alcohol-prevention advocates, who counted the national age-21 law as a major success story from the Reagan era. The prospect that other states might follow suit alarms educators.

When Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, the states were required to raise their minimum drinking age to 21. Many had already done so. Any state that failed to comply by 1986 risked losing federal highway funds. All 50 states complied. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, age-21 laws have saved over 15,000 lives since 1975.

Louisiana's age-21 law would have been upheld had the state been able to prove that it "substantially furthered an important governmental purpose." That would seem easy enough. After all, young people ages 18 to 20 are disproportionately involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes, even in Louisiana.

The court dismissed this argument as irrelevant and required instead that the state demonstrate that persons ages 18 to 20 are the group "most responsible" for alcohol-related traffic crashes in Louisiana. Finding that the number of fatalities for this group was less than for other three-year age groups, the court overturned the law. In defiance of common sense, this analysis did not take into account the number of licensed drivers in each age group.

Some college officials might applaud this ruling, thinking that a drinking age of 18 would ease the enforcement burden now created by having some students over and others under the legal age. In reality, the Louisiana court has simply pushed this problem to the high-school level, where 18-year-old seniors will now be able to buy alcohol, which they can share with their younger classmates.

Moreover, easier access to alcohol for 18-to-20-year-olds will mean more drinking and that, in turn, will mean greater disruption of the academic environment - interrupted study, vandalism, unwanted sexual advances, medical emergencies, and other problems attendant to college drinking.

College administrators in states that border Louisiana should be especially concerned. One of the strongest arguments in favor of a national law was the elimination of so-called "blood borders," where students from age-21 states would travel long distances by car to age-18 states in order to buy alcohol.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana has launched the nation on a dangerous social experiment. Lawsuits to challenge the age-21 laws in other states will surely come. Unfortunately, research already tells us what the outcome of this experiment will be: more crime, more property destroyed, and additional lives lost.

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