OPINION: You shouldn’t be able to buy your way into illegal drinking

Two hands facing each other. One is offering a stack of money and the other is offering a bottle of alcohol in a bucket on a tray.
Graphic by Donnie TC Denome

Recently, some friends of mine at Pitzer College went on a trip to San Francisco. On the last night of their trip, they decided to try to get a drink in town. They managed to get into a very high-end bar and order two bottles of champagne for a total of $200, without ever being asked for identification. Two of the four of them were underage. 

This event brings to light some uncomfortable truths about the service industry. How many bottles you will be able to pay for tends to be more important than how many years away you are from being 21.

The fact that underage students can purchase alcohol in an expensive place of service while never being asked for identification sends out the general message that one can buy their way out of being a law-abiding citizen. 

A few disclaimers first. Obviously, I’m aware that alcohol limitations get broken all the time. Drinking with your parents during a family dinner (Thanksgiving was just last week), getting alcohol from your older friend or sibling, using a fake ID….

Underage alcohol use is clearly widespread, occurs in various socio-economic contexts and becomes especially common once students get to college. According to The Washington Post and its reporting on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2014, more than half of American 20-year-olds have tried alcohol at some point in their lives.

Secondly, it would be hypocritical of me to get all riled up against the ways in which money breaks the hold of the law on an individual, without stating the fact that I’m personally against the legal drinking age being set at 21 years old. 

Coming from Europe and having been able to compare the drinking culture in many countries on the other side of the pond before coming to the U.S., I don’t think setting the drinking age higher than 18 achieves any sensible results, and in my opinion does more to infantilize and incentivize reckless behavior than prevent it.

However, the issue at hand isn’t what age should be determined by the law as being past alcohol limitations. It’s that all people are held accountable to said law in public places of service, regardless of the financial power and privilege of the clientele in question. 

As mundane as underage drinking may seem, ultimately it’s an illegal offense. Places of service that allow people to break the law because of the money they can spend sends the message to everyone that some people have the ability to ensure that rules don’t apply to them.

Rules are the fabric of society — we decide on agendas and policies which are voted into laws and organize our conduct as citizens of the same country. When we allow some people to avoid submitting themselves to the full legal ramifications of their actions, it teaches all of us that the law is not in fact a non-debatable state-wide framework to our behaviors, but that it actually has varying pools of application and reach.

This two-tier society is obviously on full display in Los Angeles, where many of the trendiest places in town do not refuse to serve underage celebrities from the show business industry. In October of this year, Insider reported that minors are regularly allowed to drink at The H.Wood Group’s venues. Apparently, “their clubs, restaurants and bars have attracted a particular set of young Hollywood types looking for a place to drink underage.”

And when these celebrity minors come looking, they are welcomed in with open arms. Most of these venues don’t ID their clients who ask for a drink, and even for those that do, such as the Peppermint Club, one former bartender said that groups could often get around showing their ID to the bouncer if they came in with a promoter.

The link between how big your purse is and whether you’ll be ushered through the door that keeps everybody else out is an obvious one. During an interview with CBS News for a 2007 article on underage celebrities in LA clubs, Harvey Levin, managing editor of the celebrity website TMZ.com, commented that “young, hot stars and starlets attract big crowds and big crowds mean big money for these clubs.” 

An endless appetite for high-paying customers, added to the pressure of remaining the hottest place in town, incentivizes managers to break the law. 

On the bartenders’ end, this also sends the message to them that they have to commit the crime of serving alcohol to minors and risk receiving a considerable fine and/or jail time (which in California can be up to $1,000 and/or 24 hours of community service) for the convenience of someone influential and financially powerful to whom they cannot say no.

Former workers of The H.Wood Group told Insider that when they took their concerns about serving underage clients to management, they were told to break the law anyway. According to one former worker of the restaurant Delilah, “You’re not allowed to ask questions. If they’re in there, you have to serve them.”

Through these happenings, underage clients who have the financial capacity of footing those bills (and the crowds who undoubtedly watch them through social media) receive the message that the focus of the law is subjective. People won’t submit you to the rules if you have the benefits of power and wealth to assist you. 

When we walk into a bar, we should be certain that we’re being refused service because of our age and not because we don’t seem rich or important enough to break the law for.

Megan Chourreau-Lyon is a Franco-British Pitzer College exchange student who’s really looking forward to being able to drink cheap legal alcohol again when she gets back to Europe. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the fine for serving alcohol to minors in California can be up to $100. The crime is punishable by up to an $1,000 fine. TSL regrets this error.
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