A bill to raise Washington's minimum drinking age for beer and wine from 18 to 21 was introduced yesterday by two City Council members who said they were acting in response to a similar change in Maryland law last year and pending legislation in Virginia.
Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) said that without a change in D.C. law, the city risks becoming a magnet for young drinkers from the suburbs.
The measure was immediately criticized by restaurateurs and liquor dealers, who said they oppose it. In addition, the chairman of the council committee that must approve the bill said he opposes it.
Wilson said the bill would prevent increased drunken driving in Washington that he said could result from the changes in the Maryland and Virginia laws. A law raising the drinking age to 21 was passed in Maryland last year. Similar legislation is pending in the Virginia legislature.
Currently, District of Columbia law allows persons 18 or older to buy beer and wine in restaurants and stores. The minimum age for hard liquor is 21.
Under the Jarvis-Wilson bill, the city would phase in the new law by raising the minimum drinking age in stages from 18 to 21 over the next three years--a move that would allow present 18-year-olds to continue to legally purchase beer and wine over the next three years. Maryland has similar provisions.
Stephen J. O'Brien, executive secretary of the 130-member Washington D.C. Restaurant and Beverage Association, said the bill was unnecessary. "Our 18-year-old citizens have been deemed responsible enough to purchase beer and wine for approximately 50 years," he said.
Eighteen-year-olds "marry, vote and serve in the armed forces," O'Brien said. "We are aware of nothing . . . that would justify arbitrary revocation of this right simply to imitate other states."
Council member John Ray (D-At large), chairman of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, said he opposed the bill for similar reasons. "I was supporting myself when I was 18," Ray said. "I didn't need anybody to tell me I could have a drink or not." Ray said a better reaction to the area changes would be stiff enforcement of the city's drunk-driving laws.
Donald Shannon, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said the bill was only the first step in changes the city should make.
"We've been asking for this. We think it's got to conform with the neighboring jurisdictions or we are going to have more of a problem than we do," said Shannon, whose group also has called for a limit on liquor licenses in the city.
Wilbert (Billy) Rozansky, head of the Retail Liquor Dealers Association of Washington, criticized Jarvis and Wilson for acting too soon. "I think the council, before it goes running off, should take a good hard look at statistics to see if there is a reason for the higher age," he said.
A D.C. Department of Transportation official said yesterday that in 1982 there were 3,826 arrests for driving offenses involving alcohol, of which fewer than 25 involved persons under 21 years of age. In 1981, the official said, there were 3,344 similar arrests, with 11 persons under the age of 21 involved.
Of 100 traffic deaths attributed to alcohol during 1980 and 1981, the official said, only one victim was under age 21.
"Those statistics will be used as an argument against this," Jarvis said. "But we don't know what will be the impact of the Maryland and Virginia changes on traffic accidents" in the District.