Out of America: Land of the free besotted by tight drink law

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Midnight in the plush DC suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland. A police car draws up before a house where festivities are in progress. As officers demand entry, youthful suspects make off in all directions. But there is no hiding the evidence of the crime. This time, though, the police do not laboriously label the offending objects and seal them in little plastic bags. Instead, they tip them down the sink.

Welcome to the latest juvenile crime problem of the Washington area to hit the headlines. Not murderous gang warfare, not teenage drug-use, but drinking in private homes under the age of 21.

To one who is non-American, few things come stranger in the capital of this land of libertarianism than the stringency of its drinking laws. Ask an 18-year-old, and he will soon admit how simple it is to obtain hard drugs or a gun within a stone's throw of his school, no questions asked. Unless, however, he looks a good deal older, the same is unlikely to apply should he wander into a bar in search of a beer. As Montgomery County's 'party patrol' shows, alcohol is arguably the most strictly policed.

This is not to dispute the attendant, endlessly documented evils of alcohol, here as everywhere else. The fact is, though, that at 16 you can get a driving licence in the US. If you murder someone when you're 17 (at least if you're black and living in the South) you can be executed. At 18 you have the right to vote. Being a teenager is no obstacle to fighting, and if needs be dying, for your country. But legally, even in the presence of your parents at home, you may not have a drink until you are 21.

Whether America's young are more prone to alcoholic excess than their foreign contemporaries - pub-crawling British 18-year-olds, say, or young Germans who are allowed beer at 16 - I don't know. Maybe the high drinking age is a necessary quid pro quo for being permitted behind the wheel so young. Maybe it's just a hangover from the Prohibition era, another instance of the puritanism lurking in the national soul. One thing is sure, however: for so rich a country, alcohol is ridiculously cheap.

A 'half-keg' of beer, containing 15.5 gallons, costs only dollars 57 (pounds 38), which works out at around 34 cents for a 12oz can. A two-bottle magnum of reputable wine runs at dollars 6, while for the same modest outlay you can buy a local (though not imported) brand of whisky, gin or vodka. Amazingly, for all the debate over 'sin taxes' to help finance the Clinton health-care package, booze hardly rates a mention. It may not be hypocrisy, but to a foreigner it certainly looks like peculiar standards. As under Prohibition, market economics and the law of the land are two very different things.

Thus the warnings in my local drug store in north-west Washington, where beer and wine are on as prominent display as aspirins, toothpaste or birthday cards, that two IDs are required from anyone who looks under 30. Whether it works is another matter. For the last 18 months Maryland has been running sting operations in which local criminology students below the legal age work voluntarily for the police, seeking to buy wine or beer. If they are served, uniformed police are there a few minutes later. To date, almost a third of 340 establishments inspected have fallen into the trap. Punishment ranges from a dollars 1,000 fine for a first offence to loss of liquor licence for a fourth violation.

Naturally the storekeepers whose livelihoods are threatened cry foul. The police, they say, deliberately use 'big moustachioed guys' to dupe them; they simply can't check every possible offender when a queue of impatient customers is waiting to be served. Then they must cope with other ruses. The simplest is to bribe a vagrant to make the purchase. More sophisticated techniques include doctored ID cards - such as sticking a new photo on a driving licence and then relaminating it - as well as downright forgeries.

Judging by the spate of recent headlines, which these last weeks have been rivalling Russia, health-care reform and even Washington's runaway murder rate on the front pages of local papers, the problem is, if anything, getting worse. Certainly, the suggested remedies become more draconian by the day.

The National Transportation Safety Board urges a flat ban on teenage driving between 11pm and 5am. Some demand a mandatory written record of when, where and to whom each half-keg of beer is sold, others the automatic prosecution of parents who connive at such practices. People under 21, however, will still drink, in Montgomery County and everywhere else. So why not couple a small drop in the drinking age with a steep rise in the price of the stuff?