New York State launches “forgery-proof” driver’s licenses in an attempt to reduce the number of false identity documents. Will this work in a country where entire generations rely on false identity documents to buy alcohol before the legal age of 21?

We are on Friday night in a crowded bar in Washington DC where the bartender asks Madison Jeffries, 20: “May I see your ID card? The girl doesn’t flinch. She calmly takes out her driver’s license from her purse. According to the document, she is 21 years old, that is, old enough to legally buy alcohol. The bartender carefully examines the card but the document is particularly well imitated.

At the beginning of the semester, the political science student paid $120 to a fellow student who, in exchange, ordered a set of cards from a friend who was particularly good at counterfeiting.

The bartender, satisfied, returns the document to the young woman and takes her order.

“Nobody ever suspected anything,” she says, drinking her sangria. “I had an even better one, but I lost it. I even fooled a cop in a liquor store.”

Every weekend, this scene is repeated across the United States. It is a country where excessive alcohol consumption is associated with university life. Yet the legal age for buying it is higher than in almost all developed countries.

New York State has revealed its new driver’s licenses with a so-called “ghost print”. They would be almost impossible to touch up or imitate.

Similar cards were produced for the State of Virginia in 2009 and could be generalized across the country. This would make it very difficult for students to consume alcohol.

But Madison’s case shows that tampering is inevitable. A 2007 University of Missouri student survey found that 32% of respondents had a fake ID card by the end of their second year of study.

“Possession of false identity documents is widespread among students,” said Steven M. Jacoby, a Maryland lawyer who defends fifty to eighty students charged each year. They face up to six months in prison, depending on the state in which they live.

Yet this practice is considered a normal part of life. “Maybe Americans like the illegal side of it. They see it as a rite of passage,” explains Julia Martinez, professor of psychology at Colgate University.

In 2012, Scout Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, was arrested drunk driving at the age of 20 and had a false identity document.

Student dorms used as falsification workshops

The ban has created a huge, particularly lucrative black market. “At the beginning of each semester, ‘shops’ are formed in the rooms, with computers and laminators,” explains Mr Jacoby. “They produce up to two hundred a week. Some documents are particularly well done. Sites offering new counterfeit identification documents are multiplying on the web.

Given the risks faced by fraudsters, student circles where seniors buy alcohol in bulk to share with juniors are particularly popular.

Critics of these circles warn against the danger of drinking for the first time without adult supervision. Jeffries says she partly bought her fake ID because she feels that drinking in public, in the presence of adults, is safer. “I don’t want to spend the night worrying about someone putting something in my drink.”

Yet advocates of the current legal drinking age rely on a 2006 study that found that people who start drinking in adolescence are five times more likely to drink excessively as adults.

“Some people will never be held back by the legal age, but I think strengthening the false identity document law would deter those who still hesitate.”

Others, like Madison, will continue to take the risk to learn about American adult life. “I’m really looking forward to being 21,” she sighs as she finishes her alcoholic drink.