My name is Austin, I hate underage drinking laws

A 20-year-old American student warns Britain not to adopt America’s puritanical and invasive alcohol policies.

Austin Post

Topics Politics

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I’ve always thought that Britons enjoyed less freedom than us Americans, with regards to virtually every aspect of life save one: underage drinking policies. So I was sorry to learn through spiked that the British government has decided to take a page from the insane playbook of the anti-alcohol lobby in America (see Proving you’re an adult turns you into a child, by Dolan Cummings). If you want to see what the future might look like for younger adult drinkers if you Brits don’t stop this creeping authoritarianism, take a look at what Uncle Sam has been up to.

As a college student in the US, and having worked in a grocery store for a while, I know plenty about the underage drinking laws and their enforcement. To start with, the legal drinking age in the US is 21, compared with the UK’s 18. In the US, showing ID when purchasing alcoholic beverages is commonplace and is a generally accepted principle. It has recently become more and more common for stores to demand identification from everyone purchasing alcohol – regardless of age – due to fear of fines.

In fact, the UK’s legal limit of 18 and British supermarkets’ ‘Think 21’ and ‘Think 25’ policies, whereby checkout staff are required to ask anyone who looks under the specified age for ID, are lax compared to some US states. In Michigan, by law anybody under 30 must be ID’d. It would not surprise me if one day pensioners get asked for identification, too. Undercover police informants go from store to store attempting to purchase alcohol without identification and then presenting a fine of up to $1,000 if the establishment serves them.

I found it particularly interesting to learn from Dolan Cummings’ report that a 17-year-old in Britain was not allowed to carry her grandmother’s bag because it contained alcohol. Again, this seems to replicate US patterns. Here, it is a widely accepted law that people under 18 are not allowed to handle alcohol within business establishments. Waiters and cashiers under 18 are required to deny sale of alcohol to adult customers, sending them to another checkout or service person. It is also illegal for people over 21 to purchase alcohol for minors (although the practice is common).

Even more ridiculous is the experience of drinking on college campuses. Here, drinking tends to take place behind closed doors and police regularly patrol areas where underage drinking is known to occur. In some areas enforcement is lax, but in Allendale, Michigan – home of Grand Valley State University where I study – the police do not offer warnings. If a person under 21 is caught with an open container of alcohol he or she can be fined over $200 and will have a criminal record.

In addition, if the person is a college student he or she is required by the university to attend ‘alcohol education’ classes or risk expulsion. For being caught with as little as a single beer, students are treated as if they are hardcore alcoholics. The punishment increases on the second offence, and the third offence can carry jail time.

Worst of all is the situation with judges. Some judges offer diversion programmes and allow underage drinkers to wipe out their convictions (and in the US it is difficult to get a job with a criminal conviction). The draconian Judge Kenneth Post (no relation) in Ottawa County, Michigan, is notorious at my university for never letting people off with warnings and never expunging records. While elsewhere it is common after some time to have the judge expunge the record, in Ottawa County those hoping to do so will have to wait until Post is out of office and petition the judge who replaces him.

Perhaps the most enraging aspect of American drinking policies is the fact that a person can be ticketed simply for being in the same room as underage drinkers. It is common for university roommates to be fined for underage drinking even though they themselves were not drinking alcohol.

In other words, even with the recent drive to demand identification from purchasers of alcohol who look under 25, Britain’s efforts against underage drinking pale in comparison to the puritanical fervour of America.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. I am 20 years old. I am not complaining that I have to drink behind closed doors because I myself do not drink alcohol. I am complaining because I resent the idea that the law treats me – a person who could have been serving in Afghanistan for the past two years, who is asked to carry every responsibility of adulthood and who could walk into a hardware store tomorrow and purchase a shotgun – as a person who is not allowed to buy alcohol.

What angers me is the fact that I am not viewed as an equal in the eyes of the law. I am angry not just about the high legal drinking age limit, but also with the fervour with which it is enforced, leading to ridiculously draconian interference with the personal choices of adults. There is an aura of Stalinism in the very idea that a person should be asked to show papers simply in order to procure a common consumer product.

Let me just leave these parting words to my British friends. If you are disturbed by any of the examples I have given, then it is time for you to take action in your own country now. One ‘reasonable demand’ to show identification can expand into a regulatory regime on a par with America’s. Of course, the architects of the British nanny state will no doubt fight feverishly to catch up in the one area where they lag behind America’s busybodies. I wish the few proponents of liberty left in the UK luck in battling against the ever-expanding army of Nurse Ratcheds.

Austin Post is a student at Grand Valley State University and a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Topics Politics


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