Legalizing it?

There’s a movement afoot to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, and it’s being supported by an unlikely group:

College presidents from about 100 of the nation’s best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the organization. “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”

Other prominent schools in the group include Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon and Morehouse.

MADD is, of course, against this idea, as are some other university presidents. The rationale behind lowering the drinking age is familiar: College students are going to drink no matter what, and having the legal age set at 21 encourages a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking”.

I’m not a fan of the “they’re doing it already, so let’s legalize it” argument in general , and I am certainly painfully aware of the tendency towards binge drinking on college campuses. But I think there’s a point to be made by the pro-18 crowd. Responsible alcohol consumption is a part of normative adult behavior for most people. Alcohol is not an illegal substance, and there is nothing inherently immoral, or even un-Biblical, about consuming alcohol in moderation. The problem comes in when people drink without moderation and outside accepted cultural norms — binge drinking, becoming dependent on alcohol. Does the drinking age being set at 21 rather than 18 moderate these negative behaviors? The research cited in the original article claims that doing so has reduced the number of drunk driving fatalities, which is good if it’s really true, but otherwise no evidence is presented that a higher legal drinking age makes the acquisition of normative social behavior of alcohol any more likely. Setting the legal age back to 18, on the other hand, might take some of the illicit appeal out of alcohol and help college-aged students learn how to consume in a responsible, adult way (maybe).

The main thing missing from this discussion is parents. Any discussion which does not consider the role of parents working with their kids on this issue when they are adolescents and teenagers is going nowhere fast. It’s as if the parties involved in the article aren’t even aware parents exist. Isn’t it obvious that passing a law is not going to solve the problem of irresponsible drinking on campus apart from parenting which has taught kids about alcohol and its responsible consumption at some point?

Another thing is true in this article — college administrators have to deal with the reality of irresponsible drinking head-on, regardless of what the legal age limit is, rather than blithely pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it’s just part of the college fabric. If the presidents here are really seeking to take on the task of helping young people learn how to be responsible, then great — but if they are just trying to define the problem of “illegal drinking” away by changing the legal age, then shame on them.


Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

4 responses to “Legalizing it?

  1. virusdoc

    You’re correct on the important role parents must play in teaching (and modeling) responsible alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, even if the legal drinking age is lowered to 18, parents don’t have much (legal) way to do this, since by this age most children are on the way out of the home. I think the European model is best for this–make the drinking age so low that children start drinking at home, with their families. This allows the student to experiment with (and lose fascination with) alcohol in a safe environment. By the time they are out of their parents’ home, they know their physical capabilities and alcohol is no longer a novelty. The combination of novelty + forbidden intrigue + peer pressure is an explosively deadly mix for the college freshman.

  2. Being a Canadian, I have to jump in. You don’t see any more problems with binge drinking here than you would in the States, and the legal age is 18 or 19 depending on jurisdiction.

    I think drinking could be lowered if it were more expensive to do… I sure couldn’t afford to drink when I was in university! (Canadian alcohol often has taxes comprising up to somewhere around 60% of the final price…)

  3. Anonymous

    I saw the article in another source and recall an administrator’s concern that because the drinking age is 21, a college could be in legal trouble if drinking was discussed with underage students. While I agree this is a murky argument, I experienced it in another venue. A previous school had an annual naked day where, you guessed it, students would go naked. The admin did very little other than make sure students stayed on campus grounds because they felt any other reaction on their part could be interpreted as condoning the practice or not doing enough to prevent. So they chose to annually ignore it to stay out of the morass. Using the legal age of 21 as a reason to not talk to 18-year-olds sounds similar and has the added element of “legalese”.

  4. Bacopa

    Oh, come on. We should really be talking about consistency here: If you can vote, sign your life away to the army, and become a stripper at 18, you should be able to buy a beer.

    Radical inconsistency in the law breeds contempt for the law, and that should be reason enough to drop it back to 18. Besides, I grew up when it was making the trasition from 18 to 21 and I don’t recall that much drunken meyham.