Alcohol is the substance of choice for many college students. People drink for many reasons: to fit in, loosen up and relax, make friends, or to have something to do and talk about. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes it easier to go up to a stranger or someone you don’t know well and start a conversation. While that can be a good thing, alcohol can factor into sexual assaults, injuries, and academic failure. Making informed choices about alcohol is one way to reduce its associated risks.


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Alcohol and the Law

When at college, it can be easy to get swept into the campus drinking culture. This culture often encourages underage drinking, binge drinking, and making poor choices. While drinking is illegal for students under 21, there is nothing wrong with drinking legally, provided you are safe about it, understand the law and consequences for breaking it, and don’t let alcohol interfere with your other commitments. Be sure that you understand your campus’s specific rules regarding alcohol.

What does the law say about having and consuming alcohol underage?

Alcohol is regulated by both state and federal law. In 1984, Congress approved the National Minimum Drinking Age Act which defined alcohol as beer, wine with more than 0.5% alcohol, and distilled spirits and mandated that individuals under 21 years of age not be allowed to purchase or publicly possess alcohol. Each state has created its own laws about possession, provision, and consumption of alcohol beyond that. The map below describes some of the laws pertaining to alcohol in each state. Knowing the following definitions is important to understanding the laws in each state:

  • Possession: Possession is exactly what it sounds like: having alcohol on your person or in your keeping. You can possess alcohol even if you are not physically holding it. For instance, alcohol found in your bedroom would still be in your possession.
  • Consumption: Consumption of alcohol occurs as you are physically drinking (or eating) it.
  • Internal possession: This occurs after the consumption of alcohol as determined by a blood, urine, or breath test. Minors can be charged with internal possession if their blood alcohol content shows that they’ve been consuming alcohol even if there were no witnesses to the actual consumption.

You may notice that some of the laws seem to contradict each other. For instance, in Rhode Island, providing alcohol to a minor is allowed if it is provided by a parent or spouse, but the underage possession of alcohol is prohibited. Generally speaking, it means that parents or spouses will not get in legal trouble for providing alcohol, but the minor will get in trouble for possessing it. In some cases, seemingly contradictory laws may be outdated. In others, minors may be allowed to possess alcohol to do their jobs (serving or bartending), but they are not allowed to consume it. It is better to be safe than sorry, however. Before you go to college, learn about the different laws and the repercussions for breaking them in your state. For more information and details, visit the Alcohol Policy Information System website.

What does the law say about parties at which underage drinking occurs?

There are 10 states with laws that address the hosting of parties at which underage drinking occurs: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. These laws intend to deter underage drinking parties by shifting the responsibility of the behavior of the guests to the host. If hosts allow underage drinking to occur on their property or property that they rent, they have committed up to two violations: allowing underage drinking and providing alcohol to minors. In some states, the party host may be liable for the actions of drunk minors. Party hosts may be subject to fines, imprisonment, or civil lawsuits.

What is a DWI?

DWI, or driving while intoxicated, is a crime that consists of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A DWI is the same thing as a DUI (driving under the influence) and an OUI (operating under the influence), though the names may differ between states. DWIs are often given for drunk driving. A person is incapable of driving safely if his or her blood-alcohol content is .08 or higher. If an individual who is pulled over for suspected drunk driving is underage, his or her blood alcohol content cannot be greater than or equal to .02.

The penalties for a DWI can include jail time, fines, driver’s license suspension, and community service depending on the circumstances and the number of prior DWI offenses an individual has on record. Refusing to take a field sobriety test after being pulled over may automatically result in a fine or license suspension. Field tests are typically performed before breathalyzers and include a test of balance, the ability of the eyes to focus on and follow an object, and a heel-to-toe walk. Individuals who fail field tests are subjected to breathalyzers to estimate their blood alcohol content.

If you have been drinking or doing drugs at all, the safest plan is not to drive. If you are away from home, choose one of your friends to stay sober and be the driver or consider calling an Uber, Lyft, or taxi to bring you back to campus or to your apartment. Many colleges also offer shuttle services, and big cities offer late-night public transportation. In the United States, 27 people die every day in or as a result of injuries incurred during drunk driving accidents. In 2013, nearly 10,000 people died and nearly 300,000 people were injured in drunk driving accidents. Your life, the lives of your friends, and the lives of strangers are not worth the “convenience” of driving under the influence.

What if I have a friend in need of medical attention but I’m underage and have been drinking?

If you are at a party and someone becomes unresponsive, they need urgent medical care. Regardless of whether you are underage and under the influence of alcohol (or illegal drugs), calling 9-1-1 should be a priority. Good Samaritan laws exist to protect individuals who call for emergency medical attention from arrest or prosecution despite the fact that they may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You can learn more about Good Samaritan laws here.

Responsible Drinking

Drinking responsibly encompasses a number of things, like keeping an eye on your friends while you’re out, drinking water throughout the night and between each drink, having a sober designated driver, and eating beforehand. The following tips will help ensure responsible drinking:

  • Eat food before you drink and while you are drinking. If your stomach is full before you start drinking, you may slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Particularly good at slowing down alcohol absorption are foods with a high fat content. Go ahead and get that extra cheesy grilled cheese sandwich if you’re planning a night on the town.
  • Drink water between drinks. Alcohol dehydrates. Make it a point to drink water between each alcoholic beverage that you consume. This will keep your blood pressure at a normal level and help prevent a hangover in the morning.
  • Don’t chug your drinks. If you’re chugging drinks, you are drinking to get drunk, which can lead to getting sick, binge drinking, and alcohol abuse down the line. Choose drinks that you enjoy drinking and that you can sip over a longer period of time instead of ones that taste so bad you feel like you have to toss them back. This way, your body has more time to absorb and metabolize the alcohol that you’re putting into it.
  • Don’t accept drinks that you didn’t see made or ones you made yourself. Alcohol is the most commonly used date rape drug, but there are actual substances that can be easily added to your drink that will cause amnesia, loss of motor function, and impaired judgment.
  • Don’t mix drugs and alcohol. While this is particularly true for illegal drugs, you should also be aware that everyday over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs may also interact with alcohol. Read about the side effects of any medications you are taking. If they interact with alcohol, drink water or soda for the evening instead.
  • Don’t mix caffeine and alcohol. Mixing caffeine and alcohol means you’re doubly likely to experience dehydration, as both make you need to urinate more frequently. Caffeine may also dull the effects of alcohol, leading you to drink more than you would otherwise. You can learn more about the effects of caffeine on the Student Caffé blog.
  • Do not drink and drive. Drinking and driving puts not only you and whomever else is in the vehicle at risk, but also pedestrians and other drivers. The results of drunk driving kill nearly 30 people every day. Get a designated driver or walk as a group, but under no circumstances should anyone who has been drinking attempt to drive a motor vehicle.
  • Stay with your friends. An intoxicated individual has an altered sense of direction and distance, making walking home alone dangerous. Go out as a group and go home as a group, whether you call for a ride or walk home together. Don’t assume that anyone can make it alone, even if that person protests.
  • Keep an eye on your friends. If you see a friend who is drinking a little too fast or getting a little too drunk, offer him or her some food or water. Try to dissuade that friend from accepting another alcoholic beverage. If he or she has passed out or gone into a stupor, your friend may need immediate medical attention. Call campus security or 9-1-1.

What are my limits?

The amount of alcohol that you can drink responsibly depends on your sex, weight, metabolism, tolerance, and the type of alcohol that you are consuming. One drink means something different for beer, wine, and spirits (vodka, rum, whiskey, bourbon, tequila, etc.). One drink of beer is 12 fluid ounces (one standard can or bottle), one drink of wine is five fluid ounces, and one drink of spirits is one and a half fluid ounces. The difference in amount is due to the difference in alcohol content. Traditionally, beer has less alcohol than wine, and both have much less alcohol than spirits. (There are some beers with high alcohol contents, typically found at microbreweries.)

The body can generally process one drink per hour, though again, this depends on a number of factors that differ for each individual. You can estimate your blood alcohol content with this calculator, but remember that this is a best guess based on your input, not a 100% accurate calculation. A blood alcohol content of .08 is the limit for driving, but you should never drink and get behind the wheel of a car. Plan to have a designated driver and stay safe.

What is binge drinking?

The Center for Disease Control describes binge drinking as a habitual pattern of alcohol consumption that elevates an individual’s blood alcohol content to .08 or above. In a two-hour period, men typically need to have five drinks to reach this level while women need only four. Binge drinking is commonly done by college students and minors, with 90% of alcohol consumption by minors occurring during a binge, but binges affect the entire population. Over half of alcohol consumption by of-age individuals in the United States occurs during a binge as well.

Binge drinking, and getting drunk in general, can have a variety of side effects: loss of motor function leading to injuries, unsafe sex and accompanying consequences, gateway to alcohol abuse and alcoholism, impaired decision-making and judgment, liver disease, and alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning occurs when the level of alcohol in a person’s system becomes dangerously high. Symptoms include confusion, loss of consciousness, vomiting, seizures, slow or irregular breathing, and hypothermia. Alcohol poisoning can lead to death and immediate medical attention is necessary; call 9-1-1 if you or someone you are with is experiencing these symptoms.

Page last updated: 12/2016