The Associated Press has a story up this morning about the Amethyst Initiative, a movement of university presidents and chancellors to promote a debate about lowering the drinking age back to 18. This is an excellent idea. Raising the age to 21 has prevented . . . zero people from drinking. Even when I was a teenager, alcohol was plentiful at high school parties–it’s just not hard to come by. (How easy? An early shaver, I’ve been able to buy alcohol in stores since I was 14. Sorry, Mom.)
As Barrett Seaman documents in Binge (see my PopMatters review here), the main effects on college campuses of raising the drinking age are twofold: first, a rise in the dangerous practice of preloading (where you drink intensely in your dorm room in advance of a social event where you nominally aren’t allowed to drink), and, second, the rise of hookup culture.
Because the idea of lowering the drinking age is so commonsensical, MADD of course opposes it:
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.
. . .
[Amethyst advocate and former president of Middlebury John] McCardell cites the work of Alexander Wagenaar, a University of Florida epidemiologist and expert on how changes in the drinking age affect safety. But Wagenaar himself sides with MADD in the debate.
The college presidents “see a problem of drinking on college campuses, and they don’t want to deal with it,” Wagenaar said in a telephone interview. “It’s really unfortunate, but the science is very clear.”
It’s not the case that college president’s don’t want to deal with it; it’s that the current law puts them in an untenable position with regard to their students. Actually enforcing the 21-yr-old limit in a way that also reduced the disadvantages Seaman and others cite would require a massively oppressive intrusion into their students’ lives. (And, to be honest, Wagenaar and MADD can call their research science, but that doesn’t make its policy implications clear. Science tells us facts about the world, which should inform our policy debates, but it can’t unilaterally dictate those decisions.)
A reasonable approach to alcohol would: 1) lower the drinking age to 18, 2) increase the use of graduate driving licenses across the country, 3) continue to emphasize the designated driver idea, and 4) promulgate accurate knowledge of peer drinking norms. Also, in the homes, parents should be training their kids to drink (alcohol can accent a meal or a party, but shouldn’t be the focus), so that the young adults will be better prepared for independence.
Criminalizing the behavior of our 18-20 year olds is shortsighted, if good-intentioned, and teaches mainly contempt for the law.