Drinking Underage: How 45 States Get By With Exemptions

I remember taking the exhausting, four-hour trip for the first time.

Between my roommate and me, we had two vehicles and a large enclosed trailer full of our belongings. Looking back now, far too much sh** for two, 18-year-old girls.

Upon arriving in Menomonie, Wisconsin, we found that everything we had learned and experienced growing up in our quaint, small town didn’t apply… especially not at UW-Stout.

The liquor laws were especially interesting. Unlike Minnesota, liquor stores were open on Sundays and later into the night. When family visited, underage students would talk about grabbing a beer at the bar with their parents. It blew my mind. My parents didn’t condone underage drinking, let alone allow me to consume it with them… at a bar.

It wasn’t all that surprising that the state known for drinking had some lackadaisical laws. But what has surprised me, years later, is finding out just how lax underage drinking laws are across the rest of America.

There are just five states that have no exemptions for the 21-year-old legal age: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. For the remaining 45 states, one or more of the eight exemptions exist.


For some, underage consumption is allowed:

  1. On private non alcohol-selling premises, with parental consent
  2. On private, non alcohol-selling premises, without parental consent
  3. For religious purposes
  4. For medical purposes
  5. For government work-related purposes
  6. For educational purposes
  7. When reporting medical need due to underage drinking for another minor
  8. On alcohol-selling premises, with parental approval

Between Minnesota and North Dakota, three exemptions exist.

Minnesota North Dakota

Both states have one exemption in common: underage drinking is legal when reporting medical need due to underage drinking for another minor. According to ProCon.org, this means “a minor will not be penalized for consuming alcohol if he/she is discovered to have been drinking alcohol through his/her reporting a medical emergency for another underage drinker.” The law was put in place to encourage safety, rather than to scare underagers from reporting incidences that need medical attention.

In Minnesota, underage drinking is also allowed on private non alcohol-selling premises, with parental consent. This means, while someone under 21 cannot drink at a bar with their parents, they can drink on private property with parental consent or the presence of a guardian. These properties include “residential homes, private properties not open to the general public.” While not legal in Minnesota, some states allow underage drinking when the person is accompanied by a spouse who is at least 21 (as opposed to parents).

North Dakota, on the other hand, allows underage consumption for religious purposes. “Some states require that the alcohol be provided by an official religious representative and/or limit the type of alcohol allowed.” This exemption was made to allow those under 21 to consume wine during a church ceremony.

The list of pros and cons for lowering legal drinking age is long, but those fighting for a younger legal age might be surprised to find the number of instances that are exempt in the Fargo-Moorhead area (due to state laws).

For the full table of underage drinking laws for each state, go to ProCon.org.

Feature  photo via readunwritten.com

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