Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The Amethyst Initiative

One of my old mentors and friends, Craig Anderson, has tipped me off about a fascinating movement initiated by a group of University Presidents. Concerned about alcohol abuse, they are urging a reconsideration of the 21-year-old drinking age as one part of a solution. You can read more at their web site.

The debate over the drinking age (which is a form of prohibition) tracks some of the same lines as the arguments over narcotics policy. There is no doubt that prohibition has unforseen consequences that we too often do not want to see, since it complicates things.

Speaking of policy, I found out Sunday that the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, which is actually a peer-reviewed journal (that is, professors rather than students pick the articles), will be publishing After the Implosion: Guidelines for a New Era (available for download here). Whoop!

I have never been without alcohol when I desired it since moving to college. The 21 requirement is a show put on for the temperance movement.

Again, we should look to European nations like Germany, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland as examples of sensible policies.
Yes, I've heard about the college presidents' initiative . . . it makes sense to me, as I think it's completely unrealistic to expect that college students will wait until they're 21 to take a drink of anything. Some will, of course, but to assume that all will is very unrealistic. And I think clandestine drinking, forging ids, all that stuff, just makes young adults keener to do it.

And then there are the old arguments about being old enough to drive and vote and to die for your country and to get sentenced to LWOP but not to be able to drink . .

The Swiss do have it right on this one, I think: their legal drinking age is 16, but their legal driving age is 18. So kids get all the binging out of their system before they're allowed to get behind the wheel of anything.
. . . and before they leave home, I would add. So they're drinking legally while they are still under their parents' roof and supervision, usually.
The lawlessness of fake id’s, binge drinking, and the federalism concerns of drinking age-highway funding strike me as three very separate problems.

Allowing states to make their own drinking age laws is one thing (though that would bring up policy problems with out-of-state students and the like). And lowering the drinking age to 18 is fine, and would help the lawlessness problem of fake id’s—to an extent though because it would create a lot of 16 and 17 year olds who wouldn’t be believable as 21 years, but all of a sudden would be as 18 year olds with a good fake id. But it strikes me that none of this would cure campus binge drinking. Campus binge drinking is seen by many college students as a tradition, or a right-of-passage in college. The binge drinking is a product of the culture of the college campus, and in larger part the country’s culture. The idea that if the 18 year old, college binge drinkers could legally buy alcohol now they would turn into polite wine-sippers at social gatherings strikes me as off-base and a misreading as to the fundamental nature of college students. Letting 18 year olds buy alcohol, would for the most part, just guarantee that more people would be able to bring booze to the binge drinking party. The thrill a college student gets from sub-21 drinking is not just the illegality of it; but that they are on their own doing whatever they want and conforming to the uninhibited nature of college parties.

Personally, I’d favor keeping the drinking age at 21. It wouldn’t keep alcohol away from college kids—but no policy shift would. However, lowering the age to 18 would create lots of new opportunities for high school students to drink. Just as the 18 year old college freshman has no trouble drinking because of their access to 21 and 22 year olds around campus, a 14 year old high school freshman has access to 18 year old seniors in the same way. If the drinking age were lowered to 18, every high school student would have a friend who could legally buy them alcohol, and 15-17 year olds would become the new market for fake ids so they could buy for themselves. Obviously, high schoolers can right now find ways to access alcohol if they really want to, but at least none of them can legally buy it, and even if they got a fake id, 99% of high schoolers cannot pass for 21 year olds.

The debate on this reminds me of a favorite Chesterton quote (paraphrased): Older men might always be wrong, but young people are always wrong about what is wrong with them. The practical form it takes is while the old man stands by some stupid custom, the young man attacks it with a theory that turns out to be equally stupid.
This entire thread is making me want to go get a beer.
21 is obviously too high, if I can join the army, vote, and enjoy all the rights of a citizen, I ought to be able to enjoy the right to get drunk. Of course, before I was 21 I and everyone else so inclined did.

That said, I wonder how all of us would answer this at 40 as opposed to our early 20s. You know, when those "kids" are starting to get annoying.
Seems like an easy fix to legalize drinking (and maybe even purchase -- let colleges make some money off it) alcohol on college campuses, for college students, rather than to make it 18 in general.

I might agree that putting at 18 opens drinking up to high school seniors, and thus to 15-17 years olds. Maybe a special drinking ID (in Vermont they require a "Vermont Liquor License" for those without a VT state ID (if you're clearly over 21, no one cards, so it's irrelevant)? You would have to be a high school graduate, or perhaps an enrolled college student, and 18, to get one? Might open up the possibility of class discrimination -- maybe if you're not a HS graduate by 19 or 20 you could get the liquor license.

Other compromises (which I think they utilize in various European countries) would be making beer and wine legal, but not liquor?

I would agree with going for a 16 yo drinking age (16 + enrolled in high school -- could even tie it to a minimum GPA requirement maybe?) and make the driving age 18. The argument against that, I've always heard, is that it impacts the economy -- all those 16-17 years olds can't then drive to their low-wage service industry jobs that we need them for. Maybe it's worth the decrease in driving accidents? I think so...
Binge drinking's prevalence is overinflated by a sensationalistic newsmedia.

There. I've said it.

Not that it doesn't happen, but it usually happens to 18, 19 and 20 year olds that "get it while they can" or haven't been taught responsible alcohol use by their parents. Letting kids drink beer/wine with family at 13 or 14, and purchase beer and wine on their own at 16 and 17, would be a way to ease them in to responsible drinking. Then, when they hit 18, let them buy distilled liquor. They'll have had their first major hangover by then, and no one, I mean no one, drinks like that after the "big one."
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