Fred Sohile, owner of College Park Liquor on Baltimore Avenue, says he does 80 percent of his business with University of Maryland students. So it is no wonder that he dreads the likely prospect that the Maryland legislature will raise the state's drinking age to 21. Says Sohile: "I think the effect is going to be pretty devastating."
What Sohile and others believe--and what experience seems to bear out--is that many of those students would simply hop across the District line to purchase their beer and wine in the Nation's Capital. And D.C. bar and liquor store owners near the border are ready for a surge in clientele.
"It's gotta be a great thing for us," says Bill Marcellino, co-owner of Winsor McKay's, a restaurant-bar at Tenley Circle in upper Northwest. The bar is already a popular hangout for college-age people from Maryland, he says. Marcellino says he is hopeful that an increase in college-age customers will allow him to complete his planned remodeling.
"Whenever one jurisdiction makes a change--whether in price, in taxes or in the legal drinking age--there is always this change" of people migrating across boundaries to get beer, wine or spirits, said Robert Sievers, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Since the District retains its 18-year-old drinking age (except 21 for hard liquor), "neighboring merchants will see a shift in business," Sievers said.
Last week, the Maryland legislature postponed action on the drinking age, amid continued attempts by opponents of the change to push through amendments and delay passage. Most observers in Annapolis believe passage of the legislation is extremely likely, with action expected some time this week.
Although District merchants are generally pleased about the expected influx of young people with money to spend, they and others on both sides of the border were skeptical that raising the drinking age would substantially reduce drunk driving, the primary goal of the legislation. Many young people will actually drive further now to get liquor, in the opinion of some liquor merchants and young people intereviewed this week, while others will simply recruit their older friends to buy for them.
"I found ways of getting booze when I was a kid," said Chuck Miller, 56, manager of S&S Liquors on Fourth Street NW near the Takoma Metro Station just inside the District line. "These kids will call their friend who is 21, or looks 21. They will find ways."
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is just beginning to study the issue of contiguous states having different drinking ages, according to Brenda Hewitt, special assistant to the director. But a study completed last December for NIAAA by the University of Michigan Highway Safety Research Institute suggested that the expected reduction in drunk-driving accidents may be somewhat lessened when neighboring jurisdictions retain 18-year-old drinking.
However, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that the negative effect of "border-crossings" is minimal when compared with the expected benefit of a higher drinking age reducing drunk driving.
In Maryland's case, lower drinking ages would apply in neighboring D.C., Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware, while Pennsylvania would be the only neighbor with an identical 21-year-old limit.
At the University of Maryland and at Johns Hopkins University, student leaders said last week that upper classmen inevitably will continue providing the liquor for student activities that frequently revolve around alcohol. However, they said, some aspects of college life may be disrupted.
"Maryland has a reputation for big parties, mixers where 7,000 or 8,000 students dance and drink beer," said Steve Norris, 21, vice president of student government at the University of Maryland. "Those parties would be off limits to most students, and the four drinking spots we have on campus would probably have to close if the drinking age is raised."
On Thursday nights, long lines of young college students form early at the Charles Village Pub near Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The students--about 80 percent of them under 21--come on "college night" to buy liquor, specially priced for them at $1 a drink. "It would definitely hurt our business if the drinking age were raised," said Steve Marzo, co-owner of the tavern.
The anticipated loss for Marzo and other Maryland bar owners is expected to translate into gains for nightspots such as the Shepherd Park on Georgia Avenue NW, which features topless dancers and already draws most of its young nighttime clientele from Montgomery County, according to Al Kleuver, its manager. Now, Kleuver said, more 18-to-20-year-olds will make the trip.
"The only difference is that more kids are going to have a longer ride to make--drunk," he said, "They could drink at a local place and drive a few blocks. Now, they are going to drive 8, 10, 20, 30 miles to get here . . . Some already do."
Near the Prince George's County line, James and Joyce Jackson are expecting an increase of business at their Riggs Wine & Liquors at 5581 South Dakota Ave. NE. Nonetheless, the District couple said they both oppose Maryland's move.
"I was a Foreign Service officer in Vietnam," said James Jackson, 62, "and if an 18-year-old is man enough to shoulder a gun over there, he is man enough to have a beer." Joyce Jackson, who said she has two teen-aged children, said stiffer penalties for drunk drivers, like imprisonment, would be more effective and equitable than banning drinking for all.
Bar owner Marcellino said he supports Maryland's move. But if the District ever proposed raising the drinking age, "I'd fight. It would put me out of business, and you'd put all of Georgetown out of business. It'd be murderous."