This PennLive article appeared on PA Post.
What’s in a number? Plenty if you want to live by Pennsylvania’s rules.
Lawmakers are weighing different bills that would require Pennsylvanians to wait until age 18 – or 21 – before making some major life decisions.
Earlier this month, the state House unanimously passed a bill that set the minimum age to marry, without a parent, guardian or judge’s consent at 18. It’s the same age Pennsylvania has set when you can make your own decisions about medical or dental treatment; getting a driver’s license; having an abortion; buying a lottery ticket; getting a tattoo or body piercing; buying fireworks, and buying medical marijuana or firearms.
Another piece of legislation seeks to raise the minimum age to 18 when a student can drop out of school without a parent’s permission. Currently, 17-year-olds can do that. It also wants to lower the age when students must start school from 8 to 6.
At the same time, there is legislation that some are advocating to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 – the same minimum age when you can legally buy alcohol, walk into a casino, and get a concealed-carry permit in this state.
Another bill approved recently by the House raises the mental health age of consent to 18. Currently, 14 year olds and up can decide on their own whether to accept a mental health treatment.
And while they believe these teenagers are ready to start thinking about voting, lawmakers who want to legalize recreational use marijuana suggest 21 is the earliest people should be able to buy that.
So what’s the rationale behind where age thresholds get set in law?
Well, lawmakers admit some of the lines drawn between adolescence and adulthood are arbitrary or based on the minimum age used in other laws.
But Carrie Lee Smith, a Millersville University associate professor of sociology and anthropology, offers an alternative theory. She believes a lot of the age restrictions written into laws have roots in milestones tied to our system of schooling.
“We generally assume that most people become adults when they graduate from college,” she said. “So if they go through high school and four years of college, boom, they are 21. That seems to be the magical number. Same thing with 18. That’s when they graduate from high school on average. So I think for younger people there are these markers we have about when they become adults.”
Sen. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny County, said he chose 21 as the minimum age to buy marijuana in his pot legalization bill because that’s the generally accepted age for buying alcohol.
However, he said science suggests the rational part of the brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25 “so that would be the age if we were purely doing it off the science.” Wheatley said he is open to going with the higher age if that would help it gain the support of more lawmakers.
A group of Temple University professors joined with their colleagues from around the world to look into the different age boundaries set for various legal purposes. In their research, they pointed out practical considerations can factor into where age boundaries get drawn.
An example cited in their article published by the American Psychological Association tells how the driving age got set.
Initially, it said there were no age restrictions on drivers. As traffic safety became a concern, states began setting a minimum driving age, typically at 18. Then it said the age got lowered to 16 in the 1920s and 1930s to allow minors to take jobs that required a vehicle. But as the number of teen driving fatalities rose, the idea of a junior driver’s license with limited driving privileges emerged.
In other instances such as how the voting age got set at 18, they pointed out political considerations played a role.
“At the height of the Vietnam War, when the military draft age was 18, the voting age was 21. Many politicians argued that it was unfair to send 18-year-olds into battle but prohibit them from voting and Congress amended the Constitution in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18,” it states.
When you can vote at 18, why not drink? So some states lowered their legal drinking age to 18. When those living in states with a higher drinking age began driving across state lines to buy alcohol to where the age was lower, this resulted in Congress voting in 1984 to set 21 as the national minimum drinking age.
But having a single legal age for all matters isn’t the answer either, the study’s authors found.
Therefore, they advocate two different boundaries: possibly 16 for situations where time pressure, emotional arousal or peer pressure isn’t likely to interfere with decision-making and 18 at a minimum in situations when “psychosocial immaturity may compromise judgment,” they concluded.
On the other hand, Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, who has his own marijuana legalization bill he is pushing, said there’s something to be said about having some uniformity in minimum ages that the law sets. That is how he arrived at 21 in his pot legalization bill.
“I think many people think 18 is too young and if we had to pick another age, it could have been 20 or 22 but since I think most people think at 21 you are old enough to drink, we thought some level of consistency in the law is probably a good thing,” Street said.
So where does this leave us?
Well, let’s recap the proposals highlighted in this story about where lawmakers would like Pennsylvania to go: Start school by 6; pre-register to vote at 16 or 17; decide on your own to marry, drop out of school, and make mental health treatment decisions no younger than 18; and be able to begin to buy tobacco, vaping products and pot at 21.
Granted, there’s no consistency there, but the government does seem to stop restricting people’s decision-making once they reach age 21. After that, Smith, the Millersville professor, said age becomes nebulous until you turn 65 when government age rules re-enter your life.
At that point, many of the privileges you looked forward to in your younger years are less important – or against the advice of your doctor.