Bill to lower drinking age stalls

EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS STORY IS PART OF A SIX-PART SERIES COVERING BILLS THAT HAVE PREVIOUSLY FAILED IN THE STATE LEGISLATURE BUT ARE STILL REINTRODUCED YEAR AFTER YEAR.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed a bill in February to lower the drinking age to 18 for on-site liquor locations, such as bars and restaurants, and to 16 for those drinking when their parents take them to there. The bill, which would still prevent a minor from purchasing alcohol from a liquor store, is only the latest in KahnâÄôs efforts to loosen restrictions on the drinking age. In 1973, Kahn voted in the state Legislature to lower the drinking age in Minnesota from 21 to 18. Over the next 30 years, the DFLer voted against further changes to the stateâÄôs legal drinking age: Kahn said she voted against raising it to 19 in 1976, and then to 21 10 years later. This session is the second straight in which Kahn has proposed a bill to lower the drinking age, citing her concerns over the prospects of young people binge-drinking. More than 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by minors is binge-drinking in nature, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. âÄúI just thought itâÄôs better if people drink in public and get used to drinking âĦ just as part of a social experience and not get into this forbidden fruit held out until youâÄôre 21,âÄù she said. Khan admitted the billâÄôs prospects arenâÄôt good this session âÄî a request for a committee hearing on her bill was denied, she said, but next year she could consider raising the issue again. The drinking age issue fueled new discussion, only popping up in statehouses across the country within the last few years, said Matthew Gever, a policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the debate, propped up by movements such as the Amethyst Initiative, a petition calling for a review of drinking age legislature signed by more than 130 college and university presidents , will keep the topic in the spotlight. âÄúWhen you have college presidents wanting to make this an issue,âÄù Gever said, âÄúthis is going to stay on the national stage for a while.âÄù Last year, Gever said eight states considered some form of a bill to look at the issue. In Vermont, Sen. Hinda Miller , D-Chittenden County , proposed establishing a task force that would have looked into the issues surrounding the stateâÄôs drinking age, and would have included all the stake-holders of the debate âÄî educators, public safety officials, religious leaders and substance abuse experts among them. But in a session that also featured debate over a controversial measure to soften marijuana possession penalties, the bill failed, and with the budget problems facing the country, Miller said there is not room for another impassioned debate on the topic this session. âÄúI didnâÄôt feel like the tone was appropriate for this kind of drama,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs very emotional; everyone has a lot of opinions about it.âÄù Miller did say she might consider bringing the issue up again in the future. Supporters of the current drinking age maintain studies show the law should remain where it is. âÄú[The 21 limit] has been shown time and time again that it saves lives,âÄù said Jean Mulvey , the executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Minnesota . âÄúI hope it doesnâÄôt go anywhere.âÄù In a 2008 report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that minimum drinking age laws have saved more than 26,000 lives since 1975, and the current drinking age saves about 900 lives in traffic fatalities each year. And while Kahn said a zero-tolerance policy on drunk driving would be a reasonable part of her plan to lower the age, Mulvey said MADD estimates a driver could possibly drive drunk 87 times before receiving an arrest. âÄúThere are more and more offenders,âÄù Mulvey said. âÄúI donâÄôt know what the motivation is of those people who are proponents of lowering the drinking age.âÄù Kahn and Miller said they hope to see the issue remain in the spotlight. âÄúThis prevention of trying to keep kids off alcohol is very expensive,âÄù Miller said. âÄúItâÄôs not working.âÄù âÄîDevin Henry is a senior staff reporter.