Our opinion: Deep-six Section 34 - the unclear drinking law for minors


A Dead Sea Scrolls scholar might be driven to drink in an attempt to make sense of Chapter 138, Section 34 of state law, a much-amended, contradictory and confusing statute that attempts to explain when a 21-year-old can drink legally, and under what circumstances, if any. An anticipated state Supreme Judicial Court ruling may introduce some clarity, but regardless, the scribes of Beacon Hill need to give the statute a re-look and a rewrite.

The key second sentence of the statute is 225 words in length (for purposes of comparison, this editorial is 353 words in length) and repeated readings only make it more confusing. According to Jim Therrien's story on the front page of Sunday's Eagle, the statute has long puzzled parents, lawyers and judges. The website procon.org lists Massachusetts as one of 11 states where a parent can buy an underage child a drink in a tavern or serve them alcohol at home, and while the statute is so confusing, this interpretation, along with its opposite, can be defended, parents and taverns do so at considerable risk.

The state SJC heard arguments last month from a Boston attorney whose client was convicted in Middlesex Superior Court of contributing to the delinquency of a minor because he allegedly "delivered" alcohol bought at a package store to his underage daughter. The case hinges on whether "delivering" alcohol, which could mean commercial delivery of alcohol by a store or distributor, is the same as "furnishing" or "procuring," which may be legal under the statute. Then there is the passage that seems to allow wineries and breweries license to serve minors but doesn't apply to bars and restaurants.

At best, the SJC will make the law marginally less murky. Lawmakers could do better by trashing Section 34 and simply banning the consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21 under any and all imaginable circumstances. Delivering, furnishing, procuring and other permutations would all be illegal. Until that day comes, parents and purveyors of alcohol should err on the side of caution. If there is any doubt, don't do it.


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