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In Bars & Clubs Commentary

The debate about the 21 drinking age has raged in Wisconsin for more than 20 years.

The age-old debate about Wisconsin's drinking age


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The first day of September in 1986 was pivotal for tavern owners, beer distributors, rock promoters, college students and other young adults in the Badger State.

It was the day Wisconsin's legal drinking age jumped from 19 to 21.

"A day that will live in infamy," Jon Greenberg said, wryly.

For Greenberg, the president of the Milwaukee Admirals, that day was particularly poignant.

It was his 19th birthday. Though his older friends were "grandfathered" because they reached the drinking age before the new law took effect, Greenberg missed the cutoff for being "legal" by a day. While many of his friends were able to purchase alcohol and patronize bars, Greenberg was -- at least technically speaking -- banned from joining them.

"I was a bit miffed about it," Greenberg said. "I wanted to call my legislator and complain, but I figured it wouldn't do any good."

Greenberg did plead his case to a different authority: his mom.

"I told her 'You had me at 2:06 a.m. Couldn't you have fired me out a little earlier?'"

As is often the case, mom had a comeback.

"She told me 'You were two weeks late.'" Greenberg said. "So, it was my fault."

Wisconsin legislators weren't trying to penalize Greenberg by raising the drinking age. They were trying to avoid losing a chunk of federal highway funds.

The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age for federal elections from 21 to 18. Wisconsin lawmakers responded by dropping the age of majority from 21 to 18.

That took place on March 22, 1972. From that time until 1984, it was legal for anyone 18 or older to purchase and drink alcohol. For more than a decade, state legislators tried to boost the age. In 1983, the state passed Wisconsin Act 74, which created a drinking age of 19 and included an "absolute sobriety" provision that made any blood alcohol content illegal for drivers under age 19.

In the summer of 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a law requiring states to conform to a national minimum drinking age of 21. States not in compliance by Oct. 1, 1986, would lose 5 percent of their highway aid allocation during the first year and 10 percent the second year.

Anthony Earl, then Wisconsin's governor, resisted the measure at the time but he and the legislature reversed their positions and passed a law calling for Wisconsin to raise its drinking age to 21 on Sept. 1, 1986.

Anyone who was 19 before that date was "grandfathered," so the state did not really have a uniform age of 21 until Sept. 1, 1988, which, coincidentally, was the day Greenberg turned "legal."

"I remember going out with guys and I'd walk to the door and bouncers would get a wry smile and say 'Wow, that sucks,'" Greenberg said. "About 98 percent of the time, it was no-go. But, once I found out where the 2 percent were, I just kept going back to those places.

"There were a lot of places that were pretty lenient. It's funny, I've reached the point now where I beg to be carded."

More than 20 years after the drinking age increased, the debate about it continues. Safety experts and representatives from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving cite a reduction in fatal car crashes involving teenagers and claim success.

Lobbyists for tavern owners say that the reduction comes from increased enforcement and not a reduction in underage drinking. They point out that many of the accidents now involve drivers who are 21, so that the crashes have been delayed, not prevented.

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Talkbacks

junazel | April 13, 2011 at 5:00 a.m. (report)

For almost three decades, anyone in the United States had to be twenty-one years of age or older in order to legally purchase a drink. The arguments about the "fairness" of this law have been considered since long before the law passed. An Alaska lawmaker has suggested a significant change to the law, however. Members of the military would be exempted from the regulation, if the newly-proposed bill passes. The proof is here: Alaska drinking age reduction proposed, not likely to pass

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Chrisna | Feb. 23, 2008 at 11:32 p.m. (report)

Until a rollback of restrictions happens, just think of what you can still do, and take advantage of those legal drinking rights. Drive at .07 all the time! Parents, drink with your kids! Put booze in your morning coffee! (controversial) smoke in the bar while you still can! Start drinking absinthe! Make your own wine/beer and give it away for free! (Yes, I'm writing this after 6 hours of drinking)

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Hckyboy00 | Feb. 23, 2008 at 9:41 p.m. (report)

anybody who mays attention to Wisconsin politics knows that the Bar and Resturant Association has some serious swagger in Madison. They are the sole reason that liqour stores close at 9 pm, when it actually makes more sense in the greater scheme of things to allow liqour stores to sell alcohol undet the same pretenses that a bar does until bar time. A legally mandated "bar time" is also foolish. What possibly makes sense about putting all the drunk drivers on the road at one time? Even with a 2 am bar time, it's not difficult to find a bar that starts serving at 6 am anyways, so why bother with a bar time period? As far as the legal drinking age is concerned, if you can vote, pay taxes, own private property, smoke, drive, and most important die for your country in combat, you should be able to have a drink.

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danno | Feb. 23, 2008 at 3:43 p.m. (report)

Since the 'Just Say No Campaign' what has been accomplished? There is much more binge drinking, high schoolers regularly use hard drugs including heroine, and drunk driving is still a problem if not more so. Then the stupid 9 pm cut off point for buying booze forces drinkers to bars where bartenders push drinks on them and they end up drunk driving more. Sweet set up for bars and and the police revenue department though.

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Z_boy | Feb. 23, 2008 at 9:34 a.m. (report)

If the law considers you an adult at 18, then a peson should be allowed to drink at that age, too. I also think the legal level of intoxication to drive should be raised, as well -- i.e., you should be able to drive with more alcohol in your system. The politicians have allowed M.A.D.D. to take control of this situation when, truth be told, a person can handle a vehicle with a fair amount of alcohol in his or her system then what is considered "drunk."

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