Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

Catch 21: The teen trap

After more than six years of researching Social Host Laws, I have come to one firmly held opinion. They’re schizophrenic legislation.

When originally conceived, Social Host Laws were aimed at parents and other adults who were “permitting” minors to drink in their home.* SHLs were designed to protect those under 21 from adults who should know better. As practiced, law enforcement use SHLs to routinely cite, arrest and/or fine the same young people we’re supposed to be protecting. Look at your own community’s statistics and you’ll find that the vast majority of arrests or citations are made in the “doughnut-hole” of legal adulthood, from 18 to 20 years 364 days old.

How is that possible? It’s because most laws define a minor – the victim who shouldn’t have access to alcohol – as anyone under the age of 21.  Then the same law defines the adult offender as anyone over the age of 18. So, those living in the “doughnut-hole” are legally incompetent when it comes to possessing or consuming alcohol but are legally competent if their friends drink in their dorm room or home. It seems to me there’s a gigantic disconnect in our logic chain.

Joseph Heller’s book Catch 22, which took place in Korea, was about an unworkable rule: if a pilot was crazy, he could be released from flying combat missions. The catch was they had to request to be relieved from duty, but if they made that request, they weren’t crazy after all and the request was denied.

That’s why I call what we’re doing to our children, the young men and women between the ages of 18 and 20, Catch 21.

As a society, we need to make a clear-cut decision about the legal status of 18 to 20 year-olds and apply it uniformly across all aspects of laws associated with underage drinking. This hodge-podge of Social Host Laws — civil and criminal, misdemeanor and felony, which differ greatly by community, municipality, county and state — must be rethought and replaced.

As parents, we should be as alarmed about this law’s potential impact on our children’s futures as we are about the impact of illicit alcohol and drug use or unprotected sexual activity on their bodies and minds.

Remember, these laws criminalize passive activity; the host doesn’t have to supply, purchase or serve alcohol to be liable, even if no one gets intoxicated. If he’s 18 and three friends bring a six-pack of light beer to drink while watching a football game at your home; he’s liable. Or if she’s 19 and hosting a sleep-over over winter break and one friend’s water bottle is filled with vodka; she’s liable. What if he’s 17 and socially insecure but word gets out that his parents are at a wedding 2 hours away? Congrats. Your house gets flash mobbed by 60 teens who bring their own tequila.

They’re our children but the news reports don’t know what to call them when they’re arrested: Teen? Woman? Student? Man? The human resources and college admissions departments know what to call them: gone.

In the heat of our desire to prevent underage alcohol use from potentially wrecking young lives, we’re wrecking their lives with the very laws we’re wielding.

* Laws already exist that prohibit adults from providing, serving or selling alcohol to persons under 21 years old.

3 comments on “Catch 21: The teen trap

  1. Ajax the Great
    May 14, 2011

    Yeah, it makes no sense that someone who is considered too young to drink can at the same time be considered old enough to be liable for the drinking of others. Of course, what is really schizophrenic is the 21 drinking age itself when 18 is the legal age of adulthood. And there is plenty of counter-evidence to the the claims that MLDA 21 actually saves lives. Google “Miron and Tetelbaum” and you’ll see what I mean. Or take a look at my blog, Twenty-One Debunked.

  2. JamMan16
    May 1, 2011

    The cure is worse than the disease. There’s no doubt underage drinking is a problem. Trying to solve it with vague laws and overzealous cops is turning a brush fire into a forest fire.

  3. Joanne F
    April 24, 2011

    Very well said!! I could not agree more!!
    I look forward to your next insightful, intelligent take
    on this issue!

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