The legal age for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol in the United States is 21 based on the National Minimum Drinking Age Act that was passed in 1984. Underage drinking is a serious public health concern that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns contributes to more than 4,000 deaths each year. The CDC further publishes that over 10 percent of all the alcohol consumed within the United States is done by those between the ages of 12 and 20.

Underage drinking increases the risk for being involved in an accident, being victim of a crime, becoming injured, and suffering from addiction later in life. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that 60 percent of youth admit to drinking at least one drink by the time they are 18 years old.

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It is commonly assumed that minors (those under the age of 21) are not legally allowed to consume alcohol within the United States. This is not entirely true. The 21st Amendment to the Constitution allows each state to make their own laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol within its own borders. The passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act enacted a federal minimum drinking age that all states are required to adhere to in order to receive certain types of federal funding. There are many local and state-based exceptions to the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21, however. In fact, ProCon publishes that only five states have no exceptions to this national MLDA, meaning that 45 states do allow for some form of alcohol consumption and/or possession by minors.

Exceptions to the legal drinking age and other regulations for underage drinking may include:

  • Religious activities
  • Educational purposes
  • Lawful employment
  • Parental, guardian, or spousal consent
  • Law enforcement purposes
  • Medical reasons

Currently, as published by the Washington Post, there are 11 states that allow minors to consume alcohol for educational purposes, 16 states that allow for medical exemptions, and four states that have exemptions for minors consuming alcohol for law enforcement or employment purposes. In general, the exception accounting for alcohol consumption by minors for “educational purposes” refers to students who are in culinary school and need to consume small quantities of alcohol as part of their education. Governmental research and law enforcement operations may allow for the consumption of alcohol by a minor for the purpose of going undercover or participating in a “sting” operation. Minors who work in the restaurant or food and beverage industry may be able to purchase alcohol for their work; however, in most cases, they are not allowed to drink it themselves.

Typically, the “medical exception” to the MLDA is related to certain products and medications containing trace amounts of alcohol. States with this medical exception may also allow minors to consume alcohol when a licensed physician specifically prescribes or administers it as part of necessary medical treatment.

There are also laws in place to protect minors who have been drinking from prosecution when they are reporting or requesting medical aid for another minor. ProCon publishes that 17 states have exemptions related to minors consuming alcohol when seeking medical aid for a peer, for instance.

Over half of all states in the United States (26 to be exact) also allow minors to consume alcohol as part of a religious service or ceremony. The “religious exception” applies to drinking wine during a church service and things of that nature. States may have laws requiring churches to hold a license to provide this kind of exception for minors to consume alcohol, and there are often maximum amounts set in place as well.

There are no federal laws related to a minimum drinking age on Native American reservations. These places are considered to be domestic independent sovereigns that are able to establish their own sets of regulations and laws.

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There are a wide variety of exemptions surrounding minors consuming alcohol when it is provided by, or in the presence of, a family member. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) explains that no state exceptions related to minors consuming alcohol allow for someone who is not a family member to provide alcohol to someone under the legal drinking age of 21 at a private residence, however.

In fact, many states even have laws regarding “social hosts” that holds the person who owns, leases, or otherwise controls a private property liable for any minors who engage in underage drinking events (such as a party) at their residence, whether or not they provided the alcohol. The Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS) reports that 10 states have “social hosting” laws that specifically prohibit hosting underage drinking parties while another 21 have general “social host” laws. That leaves 31 states without any specific “social host” laws involving underage drinking events on private property.

In general, in relation to underage drinking exceptions, a “family member” is a parent, guardian, or spouse. Many states require that the alcohol be provided by the family member directly in order for minors to legally consume it while others require that the family member be present while it is consumed. Still others specify that the family member must both provide the alcohol and be present while it is consumed.

Much of the time, a state’s exception to the MLDA when related to minors consuming alcohol provided by, or in the presence of, a family member is also location-specific, meaning that the alcohol must be consumed at a private residence or on private property. Some state laws only allow minors to legally consume alcohol at the home of a parent or guardian, while others only allow for minors to consume alcohol on licensed premises in the presence of their parent, guardian, or spouse. States like Texas (and seven other states, according to ProCon) allow minors to drink in places that are licensed to sell alcohol, like a restaurant or bar, if their parent is present and permits it.

Laws involving minors and drinking differ between “possession,” “consumption,” and “internal possession.” In general, possession is when a person is physically holding an alcoholic beverage while consumption is the act of drinking it. Internal possession refers to the presence of alcohol within a person’s body. States with strict internal possession laws may not require evidence of a minor possessing or consuming alcohol per se, but if alcohol is present in the body (usually detected through a breathalyzer or blood test), they can be cited for the internal possession of alcohol.

The CDC publishes that one out of every 10 high school teenagers drives after drinking alcohol, and young drivers have triple the risk over experienced drivers of being in a fatal car crash, a hazard that goes up exponentially when alcohol is involved. Many states have a zero-tolerance law for underage drinking and driving, meaning that if a minor (under the age of 21) is pulled over and found to be under the influence of alcohol, they will incur strict legal consequences, such as being charged with a DUI (driving under the influence), which often results in the loss of driving privileges.

Breakdown of Laws Regarding Underage Drinking by State

The following list outlines exceptions to the legal drinking age, as published by APIS, including which states have specific exceptions allowing for minors to possess and/or consume alcohol legally:

  • Possession of alcohol allowed by minors for a “family exception” in 27 states (which may or may not have specific location restrictions as well): Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Alaska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, Delaware Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Maine
  • Possession of alcohol by minors allowed with specific location restrictions in five states: Hawaii, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Carolina, and New Jersey
  • Consumption of alcohol permitted for a “family exception” in 19 states (with or without specific location restrictions): Washington, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Maine
  • Consumption of alcohol by minors not explicitly prohibited in 14 states: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts
  • Consumption of alcohol by minors allowed with specific location restrictions in two states: New Jersey and Nebraska
  • Internal possession laws prohibiting minors from having alcohol in their bodies at all in nine states: Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Michigan
  • Family members able to furnish a minor with alcohol in 31 states: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine
  • Location restrictions when family members furnish minors with alcohol in 12 states: Oregon, Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Maine

While nationally, the legal drinking age is 21, each state does have the authority to make exceptions to this, and there are some cases where minors can drink legally. That being said, alcohol interferes with the way the brain regulates moods, impulses, and movement, and it disrupts normal thinking, decision-making, and memory functions. The brain is not fully developed in adolescence, and introducing alcohol at a young age can lead to immediate potential hazards, and also to possible long-term damage and disruption of brain development. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) warns that drinking alcohol before the age of 15 can raise the risk that a person will suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence when they get older as much as five times over that of someone who waited to consume alcohol until they were 21 or older.

Raising the minimum legal drinking age in 1984 effectively decreased teenage drinking; high school seniors in 2012 reported past-month alcohol use close to 20 percent less often than those in 1985, the FTC reports. Even so, underage drinking is still considered a public health concern with far-reaching ramifications and consequences.