The major federal law that governs policies related to alcohol in the United States is the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which was responsible for repealing prohibition in the United States. This amendment allows individual states to control:
- The sale of alcohol within the state
- The distribution of alcohol within the state
- The importation of alcohol into the state
- Statutes regarding who can possess alcohol within the state
In turn, state laws often assign different roles and responsibilities to local jurisdictions regarding the above issues. As a result of the federal policy, a combination of federal laws, state laws, and local laws dictate the manufacture of alcohol, the sale of alcohol, who can drink alcohol, and the formal response and policies associated with problems related to the use of alcohol.
The majority of information in this article comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). For specific regulations on a state-by-state basis or even in local jurisdictions, one can refer to their own state website.
Sales and Possession of Alcoholic Beverages
The regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages has been turned over to state and local authorities. Different states will have different statutes of limitations regarding who can sell alcohol and who can purchase alcohol. The federal government formally defines an alcoholic beverage as any beverage containing over 0.05 percent alcohol, and most states honor this limit; however, there may be some variability within certain states and localities.
How States Determine the Legal Age for Consuming and Serving Alcohol
Even though the federal government has given flexibility to individual states regarding statutes pertaining to the use of alcohol, it does retain the ability to use tax incentives and federal funding to get states to support certain alcohol policies. One of these policies is the establishment of a legal age for drinking alcohol.
The Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 established the minimum legal drinking age as 21 years old, and nearly every state abides by that standard, although there are some exceptions that states in various localities may recognize. The federal government can withhold certain percentages of federal funding if states do not abide by this minimum standard. Again, most states abide by the minimum standard; however, there are some exceptions in some states that allow individuals under the age of 21 to drink alcohol with parents, certain family members, or guardians. The specification of who actually qualifies as a guardian or family member will vary depending on the state that has this policy. In addition, some localities may extend this exception to allow individuals under the age of 21 to drink alcohol within their own private residence or in the residence of a parent or guardian. One can check with their state website to see how these exceptions may be applied in their specific locality.
In the majority of states, the legal age to serve alcohol is 21 in establishments where alcohol sales are the primary function (e.g., a bar or lounge). In establishments where the primary purpose is to serve food, states often lower this requirement to 18. The legal age for bartenders is 21 in most states, but again, the nature of the business can result in certain exceptions.
The maximum level of alcohol per drink, and the maximum number of drinks one can serve an individual at one time, varies from state to state and location to location. States have specific regulations regarding the retail sale of alcoholic beverages and the licensing of businesses allowing them to sell different types of alcoholic beverages. Some retail outlets are only allowed to sell beer and wine, and some can sell liquor, depending on the licenses the business has obtained. Individuals who sell alcohol in retail outlets may be significantly younger than 21 years old (e.g., cashiers in large retail stores that sell beer, wine, and liquor).
Most states require that an individual present a government-issued identification card with a picture on it in order to verify that the individual is qualified to purchase alcoholic beverages; however, there may be different interpretations of acceptable forms of identification from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Many states also have strict regulations regarding the use of “happy hours” or other specials in facilities that serve alcoholic beverages. In most cases, establishments cannot offer free alcoholic beverages in combination with other alcoholic beverages (e.g., two-for-one drink specials) or free alcohol with meals.
Penalties Associated with Serving Alcohol to a Pregnant Woman
Only 18 states formally prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to pregnant women. The determination of liability, penalties for drinking while pregnant, etc., are established on a case-by-case basis in states where there is no specific law that prohibits serving alcoholic beverages to a pregnant woman. This issue has generated some recent controversy when the State of New York ruled that refusal to serve a pregnant woman was a violation of the individual’s rights. In addition, some states have different regulations that may allow authorities to charge a woman with a criminal offense if she has delivered a baby that has a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Penalties Associated with Illegal Possession, Use, or Sale of Alcohol
Penalties for the illegal sale of alcohol, violating statutes regarding the sale of alcohol to minors, possession of alcohol by minors, etc., will vary from state to state and from locality to locality. In addition, different states regulate who can enter businesses, such as a bar, where the primary purpose of the business is to serve alcoholic beverages. Some states do not allow any individuals under the age of 18 to enter these premises, whereas other states have different specifications.
Legal BAC and Issues regarding Illegal Intoxication
The standard measure of the amount of alcohol in an individual’s system is known as blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is commonly expressed in terms of a percentage. A person who has a measured a BAC of 0.08 percent has eight parts of alcohol per 10,000 parts of blood in their system. BAC levels are most often detected by an analysis of an individual’s breath, urine, or blood. Certain jurisdictions specify the preferred or required type of measurement that can be used for legal determinations of intoxication.
There is no standard level of alcohol consumption that will result in a specific BAC level in anyone. Numerous factors interact with the amount of alcohol an individual uses to produce a specific BAC level in an individual. These factors include the individual’s weight, their gender, amount of food consumption, individual differences in metabolism, etc.
All states and local jurisdictions have adopted laws regarding minimum BAC level to establish limits of legal intoxication for driving and public intoxication. If an individual has a BAC level above this limit, the individual has committed a violation regardless of any other evidence that the person is sober or intoxicated.
In 1988, President Bill Clinton recommended that the country establish a national BAC limit that would specify when an individual driving a motor vehicle was legally intoxicated. This limit was set at 0.08 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the regulatory body charged with upholding this statute. Most jurisdictions and states adhere to this policy on a very strict basis; however, it is illegal for individuals under the age of 21 in all states to have any positive level of alcohol in their system when driving. In addition, the legalities of what constitutes “driving” can be used by attorneys to circumvent this overall policy. However, an individual’s BAC level is considered by most jurisdictions to be such important indicator of their level of intoxication that when this information is available and the measurement is over 0.08 percent, it overrides any other information, including field sobriety tests, observer reports of an individual’s behavior, subjective reports, etc. However, police officers and other authorities can use observational data to suggest that an individual is intoxicated if their BAC level is below 0.08 percent.
Maximum jail penalties, driver’s license restrictions, and fines are determined by different states, and jurisdictions have some flexibility to implement these penalties in specific situations. However, the trend has been to limit the flexibility of judges regarding the penalties handed out for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Different states in different jurisdictions will also have different statutes regarding the status of repeat offenders. For instance, many states now issue felony charges to repeat offenders who drive under the influence of alcohol; the actual number of charges and the time limit for defining repeat offenses can vary from state to state. Many states have different statues regarding driving a public vehicle and using alcohol, such that more stringent BAC levels are applied (e.g., 0.04 percent in many jurisdictions).
The enforcement of public intoxication not relating to the operation of a motor vehicle varies significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and case to case. Individuals can check with their state or city website to determine how the notion of public intoxication is treated and penalized in their area.