Drinking Learner Permits for Adults Under Age 21

Drinking learner permits? The proposal to issue drinking learner permits to adults under the age of 21 in an innovative one. It uses the same logic as issuing driving learner permits.


I.   Drinking Learner Permits.

II.  A Learner’s Permit for Drinking.

III. Drinking Learner Permits Opposition.

IV.  Drinking Learner Permits for Under-Age Adults.

I. Drinking Learner Permits to Promote Responsible Behavior

Adults age 18, 19 and 20 should be able to drink alcoholic beverages if they have a drinking learners permit.

A Thought Experiment

If we prepared young people to drive the same way we “prepare” them for drinking, we would do the following.

• Tell them that driving a vehicle is dangerous. That tens of thousand of people die each year in traffic crashes.
• Explain that driving requires knowing the rules of the road.
• Tell them that we don’t teach them these rules. That’s because we don’t want to send them “mixed messages” about their ability to drive.
• Explain that good driving requires guided practice. But we can’t provide that because they’re too young to drive.
• Explain that they lack the necessary emotional maturity to drive safely. We would explain that they will acquire this maturity on their 21st birthday.

Then, on that magic day, we would hand them the keys to the car. We would remind them that using public transit is much safer. But if they insist on driving, we would ask them to be careful and not kill themselves or others.

drinking learner permitsOur streets and highways would be highly dangerous. Yet we use the same approach in preparing young people to consume alcohol when they turn 21. And most will decide to drink before then.

The Reality

Underage persons generally drink without parental guidance. They typically drink in a place that promotes heavy drinking.

An Alternative

So what’s the solution? We should do with drinking what has proven successful with driving. That is, we should issue drinking learner permits to qualified adults age 18 through 20.

Exactly what constitutes qualified? That’s for society to decide. It might limit permits to those who successfully complete a specified alcohol education responsibility course. To those who have a high school diploma. And to those not guilty of breaking any alcohol laws.

Permits could have graduated rights, as with driving learner’s permits. Perhaps at first permit holders could only drink with a parent present. Then anywhere with a parent present. Then in a restaurant, with no parental supervision needed. And so on. Successful compliance with all permit conditions would lead incremental lifting of all restrictions.

Possible Objections

Alcohol and Young Brains

drinking learner permitsBut doesn’t alcohol damage young brains? There’s no evidence that drinking in moderation damages young brains. Nor is there any reason to suspect that it might. Otherwise, Italians, Jews, Greeks and many others would be showing the negative affects. The often-cited research uses only rats and alcohol abusers. It doesn’t study young people who consume in moderation.

Early Drinking Leads to Problems

But aren’t those who begin drinking earlier more likely to have drinking and other problems? At least later in life? Known pre-existing personality factors cause this correlation. For example, psychologists are able to study pre-schoolers first. Then they can predict accurately which will begin drinking earlier and also to have drinking problems later.


It’s time to re-think our approach to alcohol education and public policy. Part of the solution might be the issuance of drinking learner permits. That’s to qualified adults age 18, 19 and 20.

Let the dialogue begin.

II. A Learner’s Permit for Drinking

by high school student Courtney Love Gavin.

drinking learner permits
Courtney Love Gavin

The transformation of going from a child to an adult does not happen overnight. It is a metamorphosis that happens over time. You progress from crawling to walking to sprinting. Although it may seem that time flies, it actually takes place gradually in a natural progression.

On most things in my life the more I practiced and was familiar with something, the greater results I achieved. I would not have been able to write my personal statement for college without the years of practice and time I have had to develop my writing skills. A prime example of a step on the ladder to adulthood is the privilege to drive.

Driving License

But in order to drive I had to receive my license. I got my license by passing my driver’s test, logging in more than 100 hours driving on the car with my parents, and going to driving school. I would not have been able to drive with my parents without obtaining my permit. My permit came through passing a written exam and attending driving school for the first time.

I had to go through all of this preparation in order to drive at the age of 16. At first I didn’t understand the point of all this but I now understand that driving is a huge responsibility and should not be taken lightly. Accidents can happen very quickly and are numerous among drivers my age. The purpose of the learner’s permit was to let me slowly adapt to the world of driving.

If I did not want to go through all of this I could just wait until I am 18 and skip half of the preparation. Because once you are 18 you are an adult. You can smoke, vote, marry and serve our country. All three being things that, in the eyes of our government, only an adult can handle. Then why I ask, can one not drink until the age of 21?


What is it that makes drinking a more grave danger than smoking or going into war. At 18 I can join the armed forces and risk my life, but I cannot have a glass of red wine with my dinner at a restaurant? Heart disease is the number one killer for women and smoking has been a major contributor to this problem. But it is okay for me to smoke three years earlier than I would drink because drinking is a bigger responsibility.

I do not mean to downplay the effects of drinking by any means. There is alcoholism, drunk driving, and binge drinking among others that are just a few of the effects drinking can have on your life. However, I do feel that some of the problems attributed with drinking could be prevented if it took on a more integrated approach.

If a drinking learner’s permit were available then those under 21 would be more aware of the effects of drinking. Drinking gradually and in moderation seem like a much healthier approach than just letting one have no limits later on.

“Just Say No”

You do not teach a child to write a sentence by asking them to write an essay. So why is it nothing is done about drinking responsibly until it is too late. Not once in my four years of high school was the issue of drinking seriously addressed. We were simply told not to drink. But there seems to be no why behind the reason. The effects and consequences of drinking under age have not been covered.

The current regulations for drinking seem to be like a stoplight; it is red until you are twenty one and then green for the rest of your life. As you may notice the yellow light has been taken out of the picture. I think that if it were put back in the number of people drinking responsibly would go up greatly.

But if nothing is changed, I will still become an 18 year old who can legally do many things. Such as smoke, marry, vote and go to war. But one who cannot have Kahlua in her coffee.

Written by Courtney Love Gavin while she was a high school senior and student leader in Live Oak, California.

III. Drinking Learner Permits Opposition

The Los Angeles Times published the following from David Hanson.

“I advocate a qualified drinking age for adults 18, 19 and 20. I propose issuing drinking learner permits for people of that age.

Society would determine what to allow under the permits. The specifics may change as time goes on, just as we’ve done with driver’s permits.

But for example, the person could drink with permission of the parent or in the parent’s home. Or only in restaurants but not bars. Then, when they act responsibly, certain of these restrictions would drop. They would have to complete a very specified alcohol education course and have no alcohol- releated offenses.

The idea would be to help them learn about drinking appropriately if they choose to drink. It would be to prepare them to be safe drinkers.”

Some Responses

A reader named Chris emailed me that my suggestion for drinking learner permits was harming people. He says my college should fire me for expressing the idea.

I responded that we would have to respectfully agree to disagree and wished him well.

To this he bluntly responded, without salutation.

“There is no agree to disagree. What I say is fact what you say is irrational opinion.

I suspect you and your motivations for making these easily refuted arguments which will only sway the ignorant unthinking young and the addicted.

Anyone with one year let alone 40 years studying alcohol abuse and its effects could tell you how wrong you are with no effort as I have.

40 years studying alcohol my ass! Its been known for millen[n]ia (that’s thousands of years) that addiction cannot be cured. Anyone “studying” alcohol not knowing that fact, would at least know it to be true of alcohol addiction based just on the work done by the groups who lead us into the prohibition experiment.

Alcohol addiction and its effects were that bad, that our nation tried to end all use of alcohol to end the problem of alcohol abuse and addiction which was destroying lives, children and families, as nothing else was working to lower the rate of these effects.

The criminality that ensued was an unintended if somewhat predictable result. The extent it would grow to was not predictable or expectable.

Some Not So Friendly Advice

Maybe you should spend your effort to make it easier for children to get intoxicated, on getting therapy for whatever insecurity is driving you to make these irrational claims. Let some of the children who are swayed by your credentials, miss your “message” and live.

Don’t you ever wonder how many children you have killed by encouraging them to think of themself [sic] as mature enough to do as they have been told not to?

You are about as disgraceful a man as it is possible to be. I put you on the same plane as priests protecting pedophile priests; Morally bankrupt and culpable for the crimes committed by those they enabled.


Another Response

Another reader was even more upset. He said he hopes that my wife will be raped. And that my children and I will suffer slow and painful deaths. That seems rather harsh for merely suggesting that we consider a change in alcohol policy.

The goal of this website is to promote discussion of major issues about alcohol and drinking. The focus is on how we can best deal with those problems.

We need to look at different ideas with an open mind and to judge them on their merits. Personally attacking people who suggest that we consider alternative, and hopefully more effective, ways of dealing with serious problems is not productive.

IV. Drinking Learner Permits for
Under-Age Adults

drinking learner permits
Dr. Roderic B. Park

Interview with Dr. Roderic B. Park.

Long-time college administrator Dr. Roderic B. Park proposes the issuance of drinking learner permits for under-age adults. This would be a way to help teach moderate drinking and reduce alcohol abuse.

David Hanson interviewed Dr. Park.

Dr. Park, you served as Chancellor of the University of Colorado as well as the Vice Chancellor at Berkeley. You’ve had decades of experience with college students. Could you explain the problem of alcohol abuse among college students and other young people?

Dr. Park–
Yes. Currently, young people can legally purchase and drink alcohol only when they reach the arbitrary age of 21. There is no educational requirement before they can legally purchase, such as knowledge of legal limitations and liabilities. And the facts of intoxication, or the role of intoxication in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

Reality Check

drinking learner permitsPeople don’t suddenly and magically become mature or wise or thoughtful at any arbitrary age. Nevertheless, in a kind of simplistic hypocrisy, the age of 21 law has become part of our culture’s “solution” to the problem of irresponsible drinking. This law doesn’t work. Indeed, if it actually did and caused a decrease in traffic fatalities of ages 16-20, why not make it age 25 — or 34 — or 42?

On the other hand, we permit people to marry, join the military, sign legally binding contracts, and vote at the age of 18. Thus a couple marrying at the age of 20 can’t enjoy a toast of champagne at their wedding! Not very logical.

Effets of Age 21

What are the effects of the current age 21 legislation?

Dr. Park–
Well, it is clear that the minimum drinking age of 21 is not working. Recent national surveys show that about 90% of U.S. high school students have consumed alcohol beverages. Half of these teenagers drink regularly. These are “inexperienced” drinkers who have generally received no education on the personal and social consequences of alcohol abuse and are typically acting without parental knowledge or guidance.

Such inexperienced and untutored young people usually consume alcohol in an environment with a lack of norms promoting moderation. We see the results daily in the police blotter. It ruins lives or cuts them short, causes heart-broken families, and deprives society of productive human resources to society.

Unintended Consequences

Police write endless citations in an almost futile effort to reduce underage drinking, which has the effect of driving it underground into even less social-controlled environments, making drinking abuse worse. And of course, underage drinking leads to a disrespect for law among young people, who see the legislation as unfair and discriminatory.

Underage drinking also concerns many parents. Some host high school “keg parties” at home as an alternative of young people being out drinking and driving. Thus many parents are forced into joining the disregard for age 21 laws. We all join Mothers Against Drunk Driving in our rejection of drunk driving. But if, as Benjamin Franklin stated, death and taxes are a certainty, so too are alcohol and automobiles.

There is evidence that underage drinkers are more conscious than their parents about using designated non-drinking drivers. Why not build on this sense of responsibility among the young through a program of education and monitoring?

That’s an intriguing concept. Could you elaborate on what you have in mind?

Drinking Learner Permits

Dr. Park–
I think we should step up to the challenge of changing the youth culture from one that is too accepting of abusive behavior to one intolerant of abuse and promoting responsibility.

We should consider establishing a type of drinking learner’s permits for limited alcohol consumption, similar in concept to the driver’s permit. With parental or guardian permission, a person under the age of 21 might apply for such a “license.” It could allow limited consumption of alcohol under monitored conditions where the licensee is held accountable.

Licensing would occur within the context of educational programs and parental or guardian supervision. Permit cards, similar to a student driving license, could be issued for the purchase of alcohol and, like a driving license, could serve as a social contract used to help monitor the holder’s conduct.

One prerequisite for receiving the card would be passing a course on the expectations of responsible use of alcohol, what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable conduct, and the consequences of alcohol abuse. We have similar, clearly defined expectations for receiving a driver’s license; why not have the same for alcohol consumption?

Positive Approach

This seems like a positive rather than negative approach to the problem, doesn’t it?

Dr. Park–
Yes. I have always believed that the way people become most responsible is by giving them responsibility. I think young adults would be responsible with such a privilege following education and with appropriate monitoring. Federal legislation allowing states to experiment within certain guidelines and with careful monitoring would lead us to more civil, productive and effective citizenship for our sons and daughters.

Are there any potential downsides from this approach?

Dr. Park–
Well, first, we would be trying to change an “alcohol culture” and that could be difficult. However, I am encouraged by such an effort at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During the first year of our programs police reports of alcohol-related incidents around football games were running at less than half the previous level. Fraternities and sororities are running dry formal events. We received support from local police, from the Parents Association and from the Commissioner of the Big XII Conference representing the Big XII presidents.

Culture Change Really Works


Well, MADD and SADD had remarkable success in changing our society’s drunk driving attitudes and behaviors….and they did so in a short period, so I think you good reason to be very optimistic. Are there any other potential problems?

Dr. Park–
Some in the advertising industry might try to exploit a new and younger population. However others are promoting and engaging in responsible advertising. Could education and monitoring outweigh these two potential risks? I believe they would.

I have confidence that our young people will be more responsible when properly educated and given appropriate responsibility with guidance and positive societal expectations.

No one can be certain that any particular idea such as the “learner’s permit” will work. The point is to seek creative and workable solutions to the tragic consequences of alcohol abuse in American society. We can and must do better.


Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

Dr. Roderic B. Park was Chancellor of the Boulder Campus of The University of Colorado. He served as an administrator for over three decades.


Brake, Mike. Needed: A License to Drink. Newsweek.

McCardell, J. Let Them Drink at 18, With a Drinking Learner’s Permit. New York Times.

McCarthy, C. Should We Have Drinking Learner Permits for Alcohol, Too? Huffington Post.


Alcohol Drinking Permits for Young Drinkers

The Indian state of Maharashtra now issues drinking permits to young drinkers.

These drinking learner permits restrict the volume of alcohol that the permit holders can purchase and also permits police or other law enforcement officials to revoke the license and initiate criminal proceedings against any permit holder found guilty of creating a nuisance after becoming publicly intoxicated.

These age-based drinking permits are designed to promote responsible alcohol consumption among young drinkers. Drinking permits have been proposed, but not yet approved, in the United States.

Cameron, D. On the newsfront.  IBJ, 67(9), 4.