Fight Colorado's Discriminatory Drinking Age Law

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Fight Colorado's Discriminatory Drinking Age Law

by Ari Armstrong


In 1987, Colorado legislators, in response to Federal pressures, passed a law prohibiting adults 18-20 years of age from purchasing alcoholic beverages. This law, besides having a negligible or even harmful impact on drunk driving, is a grossly unfair infringement of the rights of legal adults.

State Representative Ron Tupa (D-Boulder) in 1998 tried to take a step toward rectifying this unjust law. With his State H.B. 1218 "Drinking Responsibility Act", Tupa gave the Colorado legislature a chance to end some of the discriminatory impacts of the law on 18-20 year olds. Tupa's bill would have permit 18-21 year olds to purchase 3.2 beer with some restrictions.

Tupa's bill failed, but it did very well considering the fact that the Federal Government would have withheld highway dollars from the State had the bill passed into law. State Representative Penn Pfiffner expressed concern that Tupa's bill included within it some regulations for 18-20 year olds who wished to drink, and I am sympathetic with Pfiffner's concerns, even though I supported the bill. The better way to resolve the issue would be for the Federal Government to return this issue to the States, where it belongs. Then individual State governments could make their own laws without fear of Federal retaliation.


In the 1960s young adults fought for their right to vote, arguing that, if they were old enough to sign up for the draft and die in war, they were old enough to vote. In the early 70s eighteen year olds won the right to vote. Unfortunately, in the 1990s 18-20 year olds are again discriminated against, this time in their economic activities; they are prohibited from purchasing alcohol whereas other legal adults are not.

Eighteen year olds are legal adults in every other way. They may be tried criminally as an adult, they may sign contracts and get married. They may fight in wars, they may move freely about the country; in every sense they have the full rights and responsibilities of every other adult - except they may not purchase the beverage of their choice.

Those who support the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law argue that the law is needed to reduce traffic accidents related to drunk driving. Whether or not the law indeed reduces drunk driving is highly questionable, and it may even be counter-productive (see the next section). But regardless of this issue, is the law fair? Is it just? Does it uphold the values of a free society, or does it deny them?

Because the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law is grossly unjust, we must throw it out, and confront the problems of drinking and driving through efforts which are both practical and fair.

Central to the argument against the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law is the principle that we ought not punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty.

If John Doe commits a crime, we do not send his brother or his father or his neighbor to the prisons. We do not punish the innocent. We do not restrict the activities of the innocent, we do not break the rights of the innocent, because of the crimes of others. We ought not punish and restrict the activities of the entire group of 18-20 year olds because a small fraction of this group chooses to drink and drive and put others at risk on the roads.

Most 18-20 year olds are responsible with alcohol. The vast majority of 18-20 year olds do not drink and drive. These adults should not suffer an infringement of their rights because a small number of 18-20 year olds drink and drive.

Some 18-20 year olds do not even drive at all! Why should they be prohibited from purchasing alcohol? Most 18-20 year olds who drink alcohol do not drive while drinking; they use public transportation or a designated driver, they walk, or they drink at home or some other place where they can wait for the alcohol to clear their systems.

Many 18-20 year olds do not even drink at all, yet their activities too are restricted because of the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law. Many dance clubs and music bars find it too difficult to admit 18-20 year olds because of the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law, preventing people from this group from enjoying the culture with their older friends.

The problems with the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law touch me personally every day. My girlfriend is 20; I cannot take her to many dance clubs and cannot even buy her a glass of wine with a meal. My brother is 20; I cannot walk with him a block to the local restaurant and purchase a beer and a burger.

I can hear some among the older generations saying, "Yes, but drinking really isn't that important. Who really cares? It might do some good at reducing drunk driving, so, what the heck, let's leave the law in place."

My response is: Who are YOU to determine which rights are and are not important? Part of my right as an American is to decide what's important TO ME. Drinking socially is an important part of many adults' lives, even adults 18-20 years old. There is a rich cultural tradition behind beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages. I ask the supporters of the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law to think of their favorite activities, the little things they like to do that many others don't appreciate. How would it make you feel to have to give up these activities, just because some other person chose to abuse the activity?

The principle of the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law is that, if even a small minority of a group abuses an activity, it is okay to punish - to restrict the activities of - the entire group. Is this really a principle we want to establish in the law?

Where might this lead?

What if it were found that some social groups commit a larger number of crimes, ON AVERAGE, than the population at large? Should we then restrict the activities of every member of these groups, because of the crimes of a small few? Perhaps we could set earlier curfews, driving restrictions, and other prohibitions on the behavior of these individuals. After all, would be for public safety! But clearly this would be disgustingly unjust. It is wrong to punish an entire group for the crimes of a small few.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 67% of all traffic fatalities are males. Maybe we should restrict the driving privileges of all men, because a minority of men choose to drive irresponsible. Maybe we should permit them only to drive to and from work, so as to limit their chances of driving dangerously. After all, it's for public safety! Again, though, this is ridiculous and unfair. Most men choose to drive responsibly and they should not be punished for the crimes of a small few.

Many people in Colorado care about their Second Amendment Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Again, by the principle of the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law, we ought simply to disarm every person in society. After all, a minority of people choose to act irresponsibly with fire-arms; therefore, we should make sure nobody gets the chance to use them. However, most people choose to use fire-arms responsibly, and they should not have their rights taken from them because of the crimes of a small minority.

At root, the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law is founded on the notion that groups, not individuals, are the most important social consideration. It's okay to set punishments and law according to averages of groups; it's okay to deny the rights of individuals because of the statistical characteristics of the group to which they happen to belong. It's okay to punish the innocent because of the crimes of the guilty.

Obviously, this is NOT okay. Individuals are responsible for their own actions. If an individual commits a crime, such as endangering others by drinking and driving, then that individual should be held accountable. But the criminal's neighbors are not responsible for the crime! To punish according to group characteristics is flagrantly unjust. Such punishment has been characteristic of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and other totalitarian regimes, but it has not historically been characteristic of the United States of America. The fact that such anti-individualist laws have been passed in America, and remain intact, signifies a turning-point in our country; another step along the road away from freedom, toward slavery.

Unfortunately, when Colorado legislators choose to abolish the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law, we in the state will lose about 10% of our Federal highway dollars (because of Federal law). So it is time we ask ourselves: Is our morality for sale to the Federal government? Is our sense of justice for sale to the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.? If we stand up now for our rights, other states are sure to follow; we have an opportunity to lead a national revolt against this injustice. First we must fight for just law, then we can fight for the money which is justly ours, which we pay at the gas pumps every day.

The words of two historical figures close this section perfectly. Aristotle in his Politics wrote, "The only stable state is the one in which all [people] are equal before the law." And Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."


The Discriminatory Drinking Age Law should be abolished as a matter of justice.

However, it turns out that it should also be abolished for the sake of highway safety.

First we should get some sense of the magnitude of the problem we face with alcohol-related automobile accidents. In 1996, automobile fatalities related to alcohol were 25% of total automobile fatalities for the population of Colorado as a whole and also for 18-20 year olds. There were 799 total auto fatalities in that year. Obviously, alcohol is a big problem on the roads. However, we ought to keep some perspective; 75% of fatal crashes were caused by other factors; other forms of irresponsible driving and/or bad road conditions. It seems sensible that we spend our resources on those measures likely to have the greatest impact on road safety (within the bounds of fairness).

Of course, the number of all alcohol-related accidents is bound to be significantly higher than the number of fatal accidents, but the statistics for fatal accidents can be taken as a reasonably good proxy for understanding the problem of drinking and driving. The statistics come from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The statistics do NOT indicate that the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law has had any salutary effect on alcohol-related auto fatalities in Colorado. They suggest precisely the opposite, that the Discriminatory Law has had no effect.

Alcohol-related auto fatalities among 18-20 year olds declined dramatically from 1982 to 1996, by 73% overall. But it is clear that this decline had nothing to do with the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law. In fact, during the years the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law was implemented - 1987 through 1990 - the alcohol-related fatality rate actually INCREASED, from 25 in 1987 to 35 in 1990. Auto fatalities for all other age groups, to whom the law did not apply, declined during these years. For a law intended to improve road safety, this is indeed a peculiar result.

The most dramatic decreases in 18-20 year old alcohol-related fatalities in Colorado occurred during years in which there was no change in the law concerning drinking ages. Between 1984 and 1985, fatalities for 18-20 year olds declined 35%; between 1993 and 1994 they declined 33%. Supporters of the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law will have a hard time explaining why the largest decreases in alcohol-related fatalities for 18-20 year olds occurred at times during which the law didn't change. If the Discriminatory Law actually did any good, we would have expected the largest decreases over the years 1987-1990 (rather than increases).

Also of interest, the 16-17 age group also declined in alcohol-related auto fatalities 73%, just like 18-21 year olds. (Fatalities for most other age groups decline dramatically as well, though not as much as for 16-20 year olds.) But 16 and 17 year olds NEVER could (legally) purchase alcohol; why should their statistics come down the same as 18-20 year olds, if the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law works?

The answer is clear: the Discriminatory Law doesn't work. It's a fraud. Even more significantly, it wastes resources which COULD be spent on measures that do work. In this sense, the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law actually is responsible for making the roads LESS safe, because it squanders valuable resources which could be spent making the roads safer.

So what are the real problems behind alcohol-related auto accidents? Why has there been an over-all reduction in alcohol-related auto fatalities in Colorado? And what can we do to make the roads even safer?

In short, the answer is two-fold: Education and Enforcement.

The National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD) suggests that the main solution to drinking and driving is education: "The number of young people who died in a crash where an intoxicated driver was involved declined by over 60% since 1982, due mainly to efforts of prevention programs like ADDY."

ADDY is the program called "Alcohol, Drugs, Driving, and You". The purposes of ADDY are to increase knowledge about the dangers of drinking and driving, point out alternatives to irresponsible behavior, and encourage activism against drinking and driving.

"Evaluations of the [ADDY] program in Colorado schools have found positive results. Over 1,800 students in Colorado schools participated in the program. These students showed an increased knowledge on each of the following: the effects of alcohol/drugs on driving, causes of crashes, legal consequences of impaired driving, and the relationship between BAC level and decision making processes. In addition, students exhibited an increased acceptance of personal responsibility for their driving behaviors," according to NCADD.

How unfortunate that the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law wastes resources which could be used for education, something proven to have a significant impact on reducing drunk driving.

The second reason alcohol-related auto accidents have declined is better law enforcement. We could have even safer roads with better law enforcement.

The main problems with enforcement today are multiple offenders and the low risk of getting caught while drinking and driving.

According to NCADD, the majority of people "believe that the probability of being arrested for drinking and driving is low... It is estimated that a person may drive drunk between 200 and 2,000 times before being apprehended. To maximize the deterrent effects of a law the punishment needs to be perceived as certain and severe."

While certain and severe punishment would be enough to stop most people from drinking and driving, multiple offenders will likely continue to remain a problem unless we can keep these people off the roads. "Multiple offenders have demonstrated by repeated violations that their behavior is not significantly affected by... sanctions." Further, "[i]t is estimated that up to 80% of chronic drinking drivers continue to drink and drive after license suspension" (NCADD).

The message is clear: to cut down on drunk driving, we need to have better enforcement and we need to get multiple offenders off the roads and keep them off.

What a pity that the Discriminatory Drinking Age Law wastes resources and police time on a project with no clear benefits rather than on enforcement measures which are proven to significantly reduce drinking and driving.

The Discriminatory Drinking Age Law has negligible or even harmful effects on road safety. It is grossly unfair, an affront to justice and individual rights. It must be abolished, now.


If you live in Colorado, write your State Representative and Senator and tell them why the discriminatory drinking age law is unfair and why it doesn't work.

If you live anywhere in the US, you can write to your US Representatives and Senators and tell them to return this issue to the States, where it belongs.

A final reminder: Do NOT drink and drive, no matter how old you are. My family lost a close friend a couple years ago because the driver of the car he was in was drunk and speeding. If you've been drinking, walk, find a designated driver, or spend the night. Drinking and driving is NOT an option. At best you risk jail, at worst you risk killing yourself and/or someone you love.

The Colorado Freedom