Claim: Federal law makes 21 the minimum age to buy and consume alcohol in the United States.
The coincidentally numbered 21st Amendment to the Constitution, in addition to repealing prohibitions on the sale of alcohol, also reaffirmed that states have the sole authority to pass laws about alcohol use. After its ratification, some states retained their laws on alcohol prohibition, some set 21 or 18 as their minimum drinking ages, and others devised more complex rules, like lower minimum ages for drinks with lower alcohol content.
This continued until the Vietnam War. Those critical of the draft pointed to the injustice of young men between the ages of 18 and 21 being forced to fight in a war that they were unable to vote in favor of or against — at the time, the minimum voting age was 21. The ability to drink alcohol soon joined, and state legislatures were pressured into lowering the ages to both vote and drink.
Then suddenly, in 1984, all states simultaneously set their minimum drinking ages to 21. This coincided with the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which didn’t set a federal minimum drinking age — because that would be unconstitutional under the 21st Amendment — but instead withheld 10% of a state’s federal highway funds if the state didn’t prohibit alcohol sales to those under 21.
Though this may feel like a runaround of the law by Congress, the Supreme Court has upheld its constitutionality. This is because Congress has the ability to control its spending, and the Court did not believe that the 10% penalty was so coercive as to violate the Constitution.
The argument that 18-year-olds, flush will all other legal rights and responsibilities, should also be entrusted with the ability to drink alcohol continues today, and is rebutted by groups who argue that the minimum age should remain at 21 for safety. So far, there has been little legislative movement to change the current status of the law.