5 Perplexing Laws Over Who Gets to Buy Booze
Alcohol laws are weird. Just look at the U.S. Constitution. You’ve got 10 amendments about limiting the government, the next few amendments are about other rights and how the government functions and then suddenly, we inked in an amendment saying, “No one is allowed to make alcohol.” A little later, we wrote another amendment, saying, “That previous amendment banning alcohol was stupid. We don’t know what we were thinking at the time. Probably, we were all high.”
Those aren’t the only weird swings of the pendulum across the history of booze. Consider, for example, how...
In New York, Bartenders Are Forbidden from Not Giving Alcohol to Pregnant Customers
Quick repeat of the above title for those who read too quickly: We didn’t say bartenders are forbidden from giving alcohol to pregnant women. Bartenders are forbidden from not giving alcohol to pregnant women.
In general, bartenders are allowed to refuse service to customers. In the case of an intoxicated customer, they’re legally bound to refuse service. But they are legally banned from refusing service to a customer because they're pregnant, as this may be “pretext for discrimination or as a way to reinforce traditional gender norms or stereotypes.” As for what happens when an intoxicated pregnant woman asks to be served, bartenders just have to say no to obey one law and hope they won’t be cited for breaking the other.
Bartenders aren’t huge fans of this mandate. On one hand, selling drinks makes them money, so this is better for them than the other extreme (a law banning them from serving pregnant women). On the other, they’d rather just be allowed to use their discretion to do their jobs. Also, a separate law mandates that they hang signs saying drinking while pregnant causes birth defects. When it comes to warnings, the government really does go for the other extreme. The CDC claims that if you’re sexually active and not on birth control, you shouldn’t drink at all, even if you’re not pregnant — because maybe you really are pregnant and just don’t know it.
The Very First Campaign Finance Law Was About Banning Alcohol Sales
Several places around the world have laws that shut down liquor stores and bars on Election Day. Such laws are common in South America and also in Thailand and Mexico. The logic here is simple: By depriving people of alcohol, this law aims to make their lives so empty that they have nothing to do other than vote. Also, these laws aim to marginally reduce the chance that people will riot.
Such laws served a different role in the past, however. In 1811, Maryland banned liquor sales on Election Day, but the goal wasn’t just keeping the electorate sober in general. The goal was to keep politicians from buying voters alcohol — as bribes. As a result, this is remembered as the first campaign finance law. Before then, trading votes for drinks had been a proud American tradition. George Washington never would have made it in politics had he not followed up one early loss by buying Virginia voters enough brandy that they favored him over his opponent.
Dry election laws remained on the books in several states until relatively recently, but by a decade ago, nearly all of them had been repealed. South Carolina was one of the last holdouts. In 2014, they killed the 135-year-old law. “Election Day is about sorrow or joy,” said the representative who sponsored the bill. “You should be able to buy a drink.”
Happy Hour Bars That Legally Must Give Discounts on Soda
During happy hour, bars slash prices on drinks, maybe selling you two for the price of one. This drives up business during times that are otherwise dead, and if they’re able to make a profit after halving their prices, that lets you know just how high the markup is on drinks the rest of the time.
Some places aren’t cool with cheap liquor, though. Happy hour is illegal in Massachusetts. They were the first state to ban happy hour, a bunch of other states followed, then those states repealed the bans, leaving Massachusetts as the only one. Ireland has also had a ban on happy hour for the past two decades. Yes, it’s the places you associate most with drinking that might have the strongest laws.
France has it’s own anti-happiness law. They do have happy hour there (in France, they call it apéro hour), but since 2019, if a bar offers discounts on alcoholic drinks, they also have to offer discounts on soft drinks. This means you can walk into a French bar during happy hour and now get the price of a glass of Pepsi discounted from “basically nothing” to “also basically nothing.” Clearly, this law shows a total understanding of the drinker’s mind and will prevent France from becoming some drunken dystopia like Andorra.
A Special Car for Drunk Drivers
Also in France, if you get caught driving under the influence, they might suspend your license, leaving you unable to operate your car. Crazy, right?
Wait, no, that’s not crazy. A lot of places do that, and most people think that’s a fine idea. What’s funny in France is that, having lost your license, you can continue to drive a car, so long as you go and buy the right one. In other parts of Europe these special cars are known as quadricycle, which makes them sound like two bicycles lashed together. Some look like this:
If a vehicle moves at a top speed of 28 miles per hour or less, and has an engine with an output of no more than 5.4 horsepower, it’s a quadricycle, and in France, it’s known as a voiture sans permis, a VSP. That means you can drive it even if you have no valid license, so long as you’re 14 or older and have a few hours of recorded driving experience. You do need to insure the vehicle, and if you have a criminal drinking record, this insurance costs a lot, but your drinking record can’t keep you from owning the VSP and driving it on public roads.
So, if you’re in France and you see a comically small car, don’t laugh and conclude it’s that size because that’s all the French are capable of building. Maybe it’s that size because a drunk sits behind the wheel.
The U.S. Has No Minimum Drinking Age, Actually
The minimum drinking age is 21 in most parts of the U.S., but that’s not a federal law. That amendment we mentioned, which ended Prohibition, formally gave individual states the right to decide their own alcohol laws. Once the voting age was reduced to 18, most states lowered their minimum drinking ages accordingly, since 18-year-olds are adults.
In the 1980s, the federal government wanted to standardize the age at 21 to reduce drunk driving deaths. They couldn’t do it directly, but they did manage it effectively, by saying that if any state goes less than 21, the federal government would deny them 10 percent of their highway funds. You can imagine if the president tried something similar today, that would attract some controversy. It did then, too. A suit challenging the law reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the law, but not unanimously.
Today, all 50 states set a 21 minimum. Even so, nearly every state offers some exceptions. In states like Wisconsin, for example, people of any age can drink so long as they’re with a parent or spouse who’s over 21. That goes for drinking at home (not so surprisingly) but also drinking in bars.
And let’s not forget that America is more than just 50 states. In Puerto Rico (which is part of America, despite what that one song from West Side Story left entire confused generations thinking), the minimum drinking age is simply 18. Puerto Rico has highways, but they gladly reject 10 percent of the funds they could get. Some things are more important.