D.C. One of Last to Raise Drinking Age to 21

Washington Post - September 23rd, 1986
Washington Post – September 23rd, 1986

If you’re under 21, you probably find it tragic that you can’t legally drink alcohol. And, I’m sure as a responsible college student that you fully obey the law and refrain from consuming any adult beverages.

Those of you who were teenagers in the early 1980s, you’ll probably remember the National Minimum Drinking Age Act introduced by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey in the summer of 1984. By July 17th it had passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Reagan.

President Reagan signing National Minimum Drinking Age Act into law
President Reagan signing National Minimum Drinking Age Act into law

We dug up some old articles from The Washington Post following the D.C. Council’s vote on the issue. Below is one from September 23rd, 1986.

D.C. Council members, in a flurry of activity after the weekend deaths of three young persons in an alcohol-related automobile accident, gathered enough support yesterday for raising the District’s minimum drinking age to 21 to force a vote on the issue at tonight’s meeting.

The proposal, long opposed by D.C. officials despite local and national pressure, had not been scheduled for a vote because council members who backed the bill were convinced they lacked the nince votes necessary to adopt emergency legislation.

But the Sunday morning deaths of three young persons in a suburban Maryland accident after a reported night of partying in Georgetown helped to change the minds of at least three council members.

The following day, the following article detailed the outcome of the vote.

The D.C. Council, bowing to longtime pressure from Congress and the recent support of Mayor Marion Barry, voted last night to raise the District’s drinking age to 21 for all types of alcohol but to continue to allow persons who are 18 by the end of this month to buy beer and wine.

The city will become one of the last jurisdictions in the country to increase its drinking age to 21. Under the threatened loss of federal highway funds, all but seven states now have adopted a 21-year-old minimum, according to federal officials.

Members of Congress and officials in Maryland and Virginia, which already have raised their drinking age, have argued that the District had become a magnet for young persons throughout the area who come to the city to drink and then drive home drunk.

The council voted 10 to 3 to consider the drinking age legislation on an emergency basis and then approved the bill itself, to become effective Sept. 30 with provisions to “grandfather in” persons already 18.

In a late-night session attended by a standing-room only crowd, the council also adopted a pay raise for council members and gave tentative approval to a measure to turn the embattled Antioch School of Law into a public law school to be merged in three years with the University of the District of Columbia.

Washington Post - September 24th, 1986
Washington Post – September 24th, 1986

The most amusing part of this is that on the day they raised the drinking age, the council gave themselves a raise. Well done.

Not only can you not purchase alcohol while under 21, in the District and seven other states, you are prohibited from consuming it even in your home under the supervision of your parents. I’m pretty sure the French see that as ridiculous. Though we also think their French President’s dalliances are bizarre, if not immoral. Who is the First Lady of France?

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Over TwentyOne

    I remember this very well The car accident mentioned was awful; some suburban kids (I think Virginia, but I am not positive) died on their way home after drinking in the city and after that the council changed its mind quickly. The city had not raised the drinking age yet because the federal threat to withhold highway funds was not such a threat since the District has relatively little federal highway mileage in it. The bar and restaurant industry made the point that the city would lose more tax revenue from 18, 19, & 20 year-olds not drinking than it would lose in highway money. Of course after accident that seemed like a particularly gruesome logic, and the change was made. It made an impression on me since I had recently been a suburban youth drinking in the city, though I was over 21 by the time this law was passed.


    This is bulls*hit. I am 20. And I am still consuming alcohol no mater what. USA drinking laws can suck my D**k
    I ve been drinking since I was 18 and no one can stop Me.
    Bullsh**tt USA drinking LAW . GO F**k YOURSELVES US GOVERNMENT.

  • Mr Client 9

    Lautenberg was always a POS