Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lowering the Drinking Age?

For the past 25 years or so, the only people advocating lowering the drinking age seemed to be those under the age of 21 (duh), and those who found unfairness in the dichotomy of 18 year olds being able choose the president, go to war, die for the country, get married and have kids, "but they can’t walk into a bar anywhere in the United States and buy a beer."

Not particularly valid reasons for sending the drinking age back to 18 after all this time, but suddenly a new group of people has emerged calling for a "re-thinking" of the 21 year old minimum drinking age, and it's not who you might think.

College Presidents: Re-Think The Drinking Age:

The presidents of about 100 U.S. colleges and universities have joined a movement calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the legal drinking age from 21 to 18.

The initiative does not out-and-out endorse lowering the drinking age, but calls for a rational debate over the question.

The Amethyst Initiative group, led by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, says a minimum drinking age of 21 actually encourages underage binge drinking on college campuses.

The presidents of Johns Hopkins, Duke and Syracuse universities, as well as four institutions in Georgia, have joined McCardell in calling on lawmakers to reconsider the minimum drinking age.

McCardell was one of the first big-name academics to advocate re-thinking the drinking age four years ago in a now infamous New York Times op-ed:
The 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law[...]

Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised[...] And please - hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we'd raise the driving age to 21.
As I just happened to write here last week, sumptuary laws regarding underage drinking have become more and more draconian over the years, and Athens is proving to be no exception to that trend. As I also explained, when they raised the drinking age to 21 in the mid 1980's, the net effect for college campuses and college towns was a "mini-prohibition", as McCardell put it, reminiscent to Prohibition from 80 years ago.

As McCardell notes, cases of alcohol poisoning, the "binge drinking" phenomenon, and DUI's amongst university students were relatively rare phenomenon when the drinking age was 18. When the age was raised to 21 and drinking was criminalized amongst this group, we essentially drove it underground, away from public exposure, where students were more likely to engage in reckless abuse and behavior.

Here's a link to the Amethyst Initiative FAQ and debating points in which they lay out their reasoning for re-thinking the drinking age. Interesting is the point that any discussion of "lives saved" by having raised the drinking age should be viewed in terms of the number of lives lost related to reckless consumption. And as with the debate on illegal narcotics, there is a vast difference between legalization and decriminalization (the latter of which takes the offense out of the criminal justice system and puts it in the public health realm).

Calling for an outright lowering of the drinking age is controversial, but as the 100 college and university presidents note, while that may not be the road to take, it is certainly time to re-think the heavy-handed responses to under age drinking. Throwing MIP's in jail (as we do here in Athens with underage college students, along with hapless doormen and bartenders who fail to spot fake ID's), makes a mockery of the law, and breeds a general disrespect for law enforcement in each new generation.

Morals crusades (which gave us both Prohibition and its repeal) have always generated great political capital, yet remain biased and discriminatory in nature. While legalization or lowering the drinking age may not be practical, decriminalizing the offense and treating it as a public health issue might be a more appropriate response, especially if we are truly serious about curbing alcohol abuse amongst college students.

1 comment:

Zaid at UGA said...

Interestingly, Dr. Adams today wrote in the Red and Black (I bet his piece wasn't truncated like the editorial butchering they did to my op-ed today!) that he's not joining the initiative but he tried very much to play both sides of the fence.

Typical Dr. Adams!