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A History of Underage Drinking Laws in Washington State

About the Author: Steve Graham is a former elected prosecutor and has been working in the criminal justice system for 25 years. He is a frequent speaker at schools and universities, and has taught at the state reserve police academy.

Drinking Age in Territorial Washington

Before Washington was accepted into the union as the 42nd state, it existed as Washington Territory. Although the Washington Territory was created in 1854, liquor enforcement got a slow start. Leaders in the temperance movement first sought a constitutional prohibition on alcohol, but this was defeated. The first law prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors was enacted in 1877. The 1877 law was entitled “An Act to prevent the manufacture or sale of Ardent Spirits in the Territory of Washington.” The statute is a little confusing to modern readers because it doesn’t define what a "minor" is. The law even stumped a historian writing for the Seattle-PI. The legal definition of a minor in territorial days was a male under the age of 21 or a female under the age of 18. While different rules for the sexes seems a little strange to modern society, such distinctions were common in early America.


After Washington achieved statehood in 1889, the law remained much the same. Although distinctions in the drinking age were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 in the case of Craig v. Boren, such distinctions were largely based on the notion that women mature faster then men and are less likely to be operating a motor vehicle. In the early days of Washington, age limits for alcohol were not widely enforced, but with the advent of the automobile there was greater pressure on the criminal justice system to enforce age limits, as well as other alcohol related laws.


The next big change in the law for alcohol came about by the temperance movement. Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the possession, manufacture, importation, and sale of all alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. Consequently, any age distinctions were erased as federal law attempted to eradicate the consumption of alcohol by all individuals irrespective of age.


After Prohibition, alcohol sales were again legal in Washington, and the legislature in Olympia quickly moved to establish a regulatory framework for the possession, manufacture and sale of alcohol. Gone was the distinction between men and women; the legislature simply prohibited alcohol for all "individuals under twenty one." In other states, legislatures would allow individuals 18-20 to drink certain beers with low alcohol content (such a 3.2 beer), but Washington had no such provisions. Similarly some states dropped the age limit for alcohol consumption to 18 or 19 in the early 1970's. (I.e. around the time that the 26th Amendment gave 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds the right to vote, and the Vietnam war drafted men that age.) However, the Washington legislature consistently kept the drinking age at 21 every time it reconsidered the state liquor code. (See laws of 1935, 1955, 1987, and 1993). In the 1970's many young people would drive to Idaho (where the drinking age was 19 from 1972-1987). This led to problems of its own, with many traffic accidents around the area of Washington State University which is 10 miles from the Idaho border.

Current Washington Law

Today, the drinking age remains 21 years of age. It is important to note, however, that the law is not an outright ban. Under RCW 66.44.270, minors may drink at home if a parent provides the alcohol. Additionally minors can drink if the alcohol is provided by a doctor or if the alcohol is part of a religious ceremony. In 2013, the legislature also approved of a law allowing minors to taste wine in viticulture classes. For more information on facing criminal charges see our blog post or webpages on MIP and DUI.

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