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Seattle Bans Booze—A Cautionary Tale

Police Beat Special Edition

I've only been able to drink legally for the past year. But the fact is, I've been drinking since high school. Here are a few tips for those of you born before this date in 1981.

Go to Vancouver. Drinks are cheap, there are a lot of bars, and--best of all--you only have to be 19 to drink in British Columbia. "The drinking age is 19 here," said a woman at the Liquor Licensing Commission in B.C. "It doesn't matter what country you're from."

Last time I was in Vancouver, drinking was the whole point of the trip. About a dozen of us, all Seattle-area students, packed into three cars one Friday afternoon and headed for the border. Four hours later I was seated in a cozy booth at a bar near our motel, sipping my first legally purchased frozen margarita. We visited nearly a dozen bars and got carded only once--at the now-defunct Hard Rock Café.

Here's a general guide to getting to, and drinking in, Canada:

Hitching a ride to Canada is the biggest challenge. While underage students at Western Washington University are only about 20 minutes away from the border, Seattle students have to travel a bit farther. A car is the easiest way, but there are alternatives. You can take a bus for about $46 roundtrip, or the train for less than $40. No matter how you travel, you'll need a birth certificate or passport to get through the border (a driver's license doesn't cut it these days), and be prepared to lie to the border patrol agent as to why you want to go to Vancouver. ("To get drunk!" will earn you a search.) Reserve a room at a cheap motel so you have a place to crash when the bars kick you out at 2:00 a.m. You can find something for about $100 Canadian (roughly $65 U.S.), but bring a few people to split the tab.

Either head for one of Vancouver's downtown districts (like Gastown, the seedier Downtown Eastside) or stop in one of the government-run liquor stores and take booze back to your motel room. Just make sure you sober up before you head home. Once you cross the border back into the U.S., if you have any alcohol in your system (or in your car) and you're underage, the U.S. Border Patrol, Whatcom County Sheriff, or Bellingham police can cite you with a Minor in Possession (MIP).

For underage drinkers stuck in Seattle there are a few other alternatives. But first a disclaimer: It is illegal for minors to drink. "It's a gross misdemeanor at maximum," says Richard Green of the King County Prosecutor's Office. "A year in jail and a $5,000 fine." Plus, you can get your driver's license revoked, even if you aren't drinking and driving.

That said, there are a few well-known ways to drink underage: have an older friend buy for you, know which stores actually card, or crash a keg party. But there are also more creative ways to get yourself a drink.

Go somewhere swanky, like a fancy hotel bar or pricey restaurant. They rarely card at the door, and once you're in, these classy places don't always ask for ID. Having dinner with an older group of people can aid your attempts, as can dressing the part--look like you belong there. And Seattle is host to countless restaurants that also have a full bar. If you dine with people over 21, it's not hard to have a sip of their drink when the wait staff isn't looking. If the table orders a pitcher, you can easily fill your empty water glass.

There's always the do-it-yourself option of brewing your own beer. As it turns out, you can legally purchase the equipment and ingredients to make your own brew well before you're 21, and there are a few places around town that cater to home brewers. It takes about four to six weeks to have bottles of carbonated beer ready, and the equipment setup cost is around $120.

But the best way to drink in Seattle before you're 21 is the First Thursday art walk in Pioneer Square. If you wander into the right gallery, you'll find bottles of wine and plenty of glasses. Don't be too obvious about only showing up for the drinks--at least pretend to look at the art.

The beauty of drinking young is you can learn your limits before you're old enough for the bars, where it's too easy to keep the liquor coming. If you do get into a bar while you're underage, don't be obnoxious. Underage drunks who make assholes of themselves are the best argument for keeping the drinking age high.