By law, a person is considered an adult when they have reached the age of “majority.” Many nations set their respective age of majority at 18 years old. In America, the age of majority is established by the states; it is age 18 in all but 3 states in the union, 19 in Alabama & Nebraska and 21 in Mississippi (and Puerto Rico). Prominent nations that set a lower threshold include Indonesia (15) and the United Kingdom (16). Others, however, set a higher threshold such as Canada (19), Japan (20), and the UAE (21).
In the United States, while most citizens are considered “adults” when they turn 18, and all 18-year-olds can vote in a presidential election, young adults are still prohibited by law from engaging in several “grown up” activities, including purchasing alcohol and tobacco.
Drink To This
In December 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. The 21st Amendment is best known (and appreciated) for ending Prohibition. It is unique in being the only Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that amended a previous amendment: in 1920 congress banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol via the 18th Amendment.
Following Prohibition, almost all states set their respective legal drinking ages to 21, inline with the legal voting age. The prevailing logic was that if somebody was old enough to vote, they were responsible enough to drink.
In 1971, the 26th Amendment was passed, which lowered the federal voting age to 18. The push to lower the federal voting age was spurred by the conscription of men as young as 18 years of age into the Vietnam War. Many states in turn adopted 18 as their new legal age to purchase alcohol. The prevailing logic was that if somebody was old enough to die for their country, they should be responsible enough to purchase a beer.
Soon thereafter, there was an acute rise in the number of drunk driving incidents. Whether or not the corresponding increase in DUIs and alcohol-related traffic deaths was causal, or merely correlative, to the reduction of states’ legal age to purchase and consume alcohol has been the subject of fierce debate. Nonetheless, in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan spearheaded a coordinated effort to enact federal legislation to prod states to raise their legal drinking ages. The culmination: on July 17, 1984, to the dismay of college students (and high school seniors) across America, Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA). This federal mandate strong-armed the states to fall in line and raise their own legal age requirements. Specifically, if they did not comply, they would lose 10% of their federal highway funding. It worked. By the end of the 1980s all 50 states raised their legal minimums to 21 (Puerto Rico, Guam & The U.S. Virgin Islands remained at 18. Louisiana briefly lowered its drinking age back to 18 in the mid 1990s).
Put That In Your Pipe – If You Are 21 – And Smoke It
In December 2019, Donald Trump signed off on federal legislation that amended the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act. Federal law now prohibited retailers from selling tobacco and related products to anybody under the age of 21 (from 18). Like the NMDAA signed by Reagan, states that did not comply with the amended Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act would lose their federal Substance Abuse Prevention & Treatment Block grant money.
Unlike most developed nations, in the US, laws pertaining to minimum age restrictions are enacted at the state level. The result: a hodgepodge of interlocking state and local ordinances so confusing that many people who reside in the underlying state of legislation, do not even fully understand the law. That said, generally, one can assume the following:
Legal @ 18 Years of Age:
• Run for local office
• Purchase lotto tickets
• Join the army
• Get drafted
• Get married
• Adopt a child
• Purchase a firearm
Legal @ 21 Years of Age:
• Gamble in a casino
• Purchase alcohol
• Purchase tobacco
• Purchase marijuana
Clarifications & Explanations
Run for local office: A citizen must be at least 25 years old to be a Congressperson, 30 to be a Senator, and 35 to be President.
Purchase lotto tickets: In AZ, IA & LA you must be 21 to purchase lotto tickets. AL, AK, HI, MS, NV and UT do not have state lotteries.
Join the army: A citizen can enlist in the army at 17 years old.
Get married: All states except for DE, PA, MN, WV & NJ allow minors aged 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent. Most states do not allow anybody to marry under the age of 16.
Adopt a child: In CO, DE, and OK you must be 21 years old to adopt a child; in GA and ID you must be 25.
Purchase a firearm: These laws are acutely particular to each state and even certain cities intrastate. That said, generally in most states you can purchase a rifle and shotgun at 18 years old and a handgun at 21.
Gamble in a casino: Most states stipulate that you must be 21 years old to gamble in a casino. Some states allow 18-year-olds to enter a casino but prohibit certain types of wagers. Four states, ID, WY, MN & IA allow 18-year-olds to enter casinos and place any type of bets.
Purchase alcohol: Nobody under the age of 21 can purchase alcohol in the United States. Consumption of alcohol by minors is not explicitly prohibited in 14 states. In 31 states, family members can provide a minor with alcohol.
Purchase tobacco: While it is illegal for a merchant in any state to sell tobacco products to anybody under 21 years of age, many states do not outright ban possession or consumption of tobacco by persons under 21.
Purchase marijuana: Most states allow citizens 21 years and older to purchase marijuana for medicinal purposes, 11 states allow citizens 21 years and older to purchase marijuana for recreational use. 11 states do not allow citizens of any age to purchase marijuana, even for medicinal use.
Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm
Americans can vote in the election next month if they are 18 years old but cannot enjoy a beer after they vote unless they are 21 years old. Americans can join the national guard, as children, at 17 years old and be deployed in case riots break out following the election in which they are too young to participate in. After their deployment is finished, assuming they have parental consent, they can go home to their spouse. If the couple patiently waits four years, they can smoke marijuana, assuming they are in one of 11 states that allow recreational cannabis use. However, if they light up in one of 6 states that have not discriminated marijuana, they could be charged with a crime, and jailed.