Friday, April 15, 2011

Will Alaska Lower the Drinking Age for the Troops?

Recently, Rep. Bob Lynn of Alaska has a bill to lower the drinking age to 18 for U.S. military members in Alaska.  While we at Twenty-One Debunked believe that all 18-20 year olds, soldier or civilian, should have the same rights that 21 year olds currently enjoy, this is a great first step in the right direction.  The idea certainly deserves a 21-gun salute.

As for military bases, we also have mentioned last year that several military leaders support allowing 18-20 year old servicemembers to drink beer and wine on base.  The current federal law on the matter is that the age limit for drinking on base must be the same as the surrounding jurisdiction or higher (21 in all 50 states, DC, and now Guam), except when within 50 miles of Canada or Mexico.  Fort Bliss (El Paso, Texas) was the last base on mainland U.S. soil to raise their own drinking age to 21 in May 2008.  However, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard has been considering lowering it back to 18 on base as well.  And of course MADD had to chime in with their usual junk science and scare tactics.

Fort Bliss provides a good modern natural experiment for the effects of changing the drinking age, since that base was an "island" of a lower drinking age in a sea of a higher one, yet only applied to soldiers stationed there.  So what were the results of this experiment?  Well, the DUIs involving soldiers (on and off base) were as follows:

2005:  107
2006:  143
2007:  97
2008:  214
2009:  183

As you can see, there were actually more DUIs after the drinking age was raised than there were before!  That's hardly a ringing endorsement for the 21 drinking age.  While the population of soldiers grew dramatically during that time, it has been growing since 2005, and DUIs were relatively flat or declining until 2008.  Perhaps it was safer to let them drink on base after all, as driving would not be necessary.  As for other statistics specifically involving alcohol and soldiers in El Paso, there are no reliable data either way.  Total traffic fatalities (all ages) in the city, even per capita, were higher in 2008 and 2009 than in in 2006-2007 despite declining for years in the rest of Texas and the nation as a whole.  And while overall crime did decline in El Paso since 2008, this trend predates the raising of the drinking age on base.

While alcohol abuse is indeed a problem in the military (and among civilians), it is a problem for those over 21 as well.  And there does not seem to be any hard evidence that pre-2008 Fort Bliss was any worse than the other bases where it has been 21 for decades.  Thus it does not appear that scapegoating 18-20 year olds and denying them the rights that people 21 and over currently enjoy actually solves anything. 

While some say that allowing only members of the military to drink at 18 in Alaska would violate the Equal Protection Clause (14th Amendment) and thus be tough to defend in court, that would actually work in our favor should someone choose to fight it.  The pro-21 crowd would then be forced to face the fact that the 21 drinking age in general violates the Equal Protection Clause as well (since is arbitrarily higher than the age of majority), paving the way for the drinking age to be lowered to 18 across the board. 

The proposed bill would also represent the first challenge of the 10% federal highway penalty since Louisiana bowed down to the feds in 1996 and reversed their own court decision.  If Alaska loses any of its highway funding, they can retaliate by cutting off (or threatening to cut off) their vast oil supply to the lower 48 states and Hawaii--OUCH!  That should teach the feds to respect the Ninth and Tenth Amendments for once.

Lower the drinking age to 18.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

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