Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson told The Daily Caller that he supports reducing, or even eliminating, the national drinking age.
In 1984 federal legislation mandated that states adopt laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to individuals under 21 years old. If states did not comply, they risked losing federal transportation funding.
“I’m always the guy to advocate for lower ages. I just believe that the lower the age the better you come to grips with what these substances are,” the Libertarian Party presidential candidate said.
“If you can go to Iraq and die, or Afghanistan and die as a service man or women at 18, and you can’t drink — I’m sorry I don’t buy into that.”
Johnson’s position on the issue makes him the most prominent 2012 presidential candidate to endorse lowering the drinking age. Actress Roseanne Barr, currently seeking the Green Party nomination, did not respond to a request for comment on her position.
“Hypothetically no, there shouldn’t be [a drinking age],” Johnson said, “but the lower the age the better.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the national organization that helped to establish the current national drinking age, was predictably displeased with Johnson’s position.
“MADD supports the 21 Minimum Drinking Age Law because it saves lives,” the organization’s national president, Jan Withers, said.
“It’s simple: Back when some states lowered the legal drinking age, alcohol-related deaths for young people increased; when the drinking age was raised back to 21, deaths decreased,” she told TheDC.
Statistics supporting that statement are in dispute, however.
One notable challenge to MADD’s allegation came from a coalition of university presidents who in 2008 called for the drinking age to be re-evaluated amid near-universal disregard for the law.
“The drinking age has, since 1984, been embedded in the transportation act, reauthorized at five-year intervals,” said John McCardell, the organizer of the college presidents’ effort.
The Amethyst Initiative, organized by McCardell, was “meant to gear up so as to try to strike that provision from the transportation bill during reauthorization hearings in 2009,” he told TheDC, “but the hearings never occurred, and will not for two more years.”
McCardell, formerly the president of Middlebury College, added that MADD mistakenly sees a cause-effect relationship between decreasing highway fatalities and the higher drinking age.
“The law changed in 1984. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities have indeed gone down since then. But they started going down two years earlier, have gone down in every age group, and have gone down over the same period at a faster rate in Canada, where the age remains 18,” McCardell said.
Other plausible explanations for fewer highway deaths include safer car designs, the ubiquitous installation of air bags in new cars and laws mandating seatbelt use.
McCardell’s advice to policymakers is to, “Simply strike this provision, reopen the debate, and return the right to set the drinking age to the states, where it belongs.”
Johnson’s position on the issue distinguishes him from the major party candidates. President Barack Obama told a 23-year-old Army veteran during the 2008 campaign that he opposes lowering the drinking age. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has not gone out of his way to advertise a policy position on the issue.
The drinking age is a unique political issue that criminalizes a common behavior among voters age 18 to 21. Because of the limited demographic interest, the issue has traditionally received little mainstream attention.
According to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, more than 70 percent of 18-year-olds have consumed alcohol; the figure grows to 80 percent among 19-year-olds. Voters age 18 to 21 who drink alcohol are eligible for arrest and criminal prosecution.