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Can Lowering The Drinking Age Be The Healthful Move?

Next week, when President C.D. "Dan" Mote welcomes freshmen to the University of Maryland, he will inform them that the college police will enforce underage drinking laws "with terrific ferocity." And then he will turn around and, recognizing that most students do drink, tell the teenagers "to take care of each other when they see someone who's passed out, to take advantage of all of our services for students who abuse alcohol."

"We have a real conflict here," Mote says, and he's talking not only about the College Park campus but about every university and about our entire society. We live in a time when efforts to enforce the prohibition on drinking before age 21 are more aggressive than ever, yet there is a common assumption that most young people routinely violate that law.

Mote is tired of living that contradiction, which is why he joined more than 100 other college presidents in signing a call for action, the Amethyst Initiative, a collective statement that the 21-year-old drinking age is not working and has created a culture of binge drinking on campuses nationwide. (Amethyst is from the ancient Greek for "not intoxicated.")

Too many colleges have become grim enclaves of student binge drinking that leads to all manner of degrading and ugly behavior. "Virtually every sexual assault is associated with alcohol abuse," Mote says. "Almost every assault of any kind is related to drinking. The drinking-age issue is not just about drinking and driving. It's a much bigger pie, and we college presidents see that whole pie."

The Amethyst Initiative, the brainchild of former Middlebury College president John McCardell, is an effort to push lawmakers and the broader public to do something that is politically tough: consider making it legal for younger people to drink.

How could making teenage drinking easier possibly help reduce teen drinking? When I was in college three decades ago, 18-year-olds could drink openly and legally and generally did so in public settings, including at cocktail parties with faculty members and at a college-run pub where professors and staffers mixed with students. The result -- of course, with plenty of extreme exceptions -- was that kids learned moderation. Nobody had to hide, and adults were around considerably more often when students were drinking.

The very notion of lowering the drinking age is flabbergasting to groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which this week put out a statement arguing that a 1984 federal law forcing states to raise the legal age to 21 has saved 25,000 lives. MADD agrees that campus bingeing is a big problem and says the answer is to tighten alcohol policies, punish violators and go after adults who provide alcohol to kids.

But Mote and other presidents can point to long lists of enforcement, education and counseling efforts that are in place, with little real impact.

"The social contract is broken," Mote tells me. "Legislators have made laws that the people do not take seriously. Students point to our alcohol programs and say, 'See, everybody understands that we are going to drink,' and they're right."

Mote signed the petition in a fit of optimism, hoping a serious national conversation might ensue.

Are college presidents, after 30 years of being selected mainly for their ability to raise money, finally taking a stand? Are they ready to sound the alarm about how a hypocritical, ineffective prohibition is hampering the creation of an educated electorate?

Well, maybe. In just 48 hours since Mote's participation in the initiative became public, he's been besieged with criticism. Maryland Del. Bill Bronrott (D-Montgomery) wants Mote and other presidents to remove their names from the petition and get tougher on enforcing the law. Bronrott, a physician who works on alcohol issues, says the research supports the success of the higher age limit in reducing deaths.

But what if a lower drinking age might teach a vast number of young people moderation, even as members of the reckless fringe continue to endanger themselves and others? Anti-drunken driving activists hide behind the faux-clarity of highway death statistics.

When he signed the initiative, Mote says, "I thought the country might be ready. Now? It depends on how quickly people shut down open discussion. Will this lead to a national movement? I don't see how that would happen at the moment."

Can you imagine either presidential candidate discussing a change in the drinking age? They'd be more likely to call for an end to anti-terrorism measures.

So Mote will stand before the freshmen, implore them not to drink and threaten them with enforcement -- and then, because it's the responsible thing to do, he will tell them how to handle it when they get plastered. Which they will. But we don't want to see it, because there's a law on the books.

That's the first lecture in Cynicism 101.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  August 21, 2008; 9:01 AM ET
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Comments

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Couldn't agree more. The absurdity of having the legal age for drinking be 21 is just unbelievable.

It creates a very strange system wherein adults of one age can engage in an activity that is criminalized for adults of another age. What a strange and hypocritical system. It's no wonder that so many of us (me included) began drinking before age 21. How can you rationalize the current system? If it reduces drunk-driving, why don't we just raise the drinking age to 25? How about 30? Maybe ban it all together? That would surely reduce drunk-driving deaths, right?

All that this set of laws has done is to waste police power, waste money, and waste general resources (court time, etc.). Meanwhile, it has encouraged binge drinking, which is far more dangerous than the social drinking that could occur in the past. Oh, and finally, these laws infantilize 18-21 year olds. Continuing to treat them like children only encourages them to continue behaving like children. Treat them like adults, expect them to behave like adults, and you'll see them begin acting like adults a lot sooner than they do now.

Posted by: Ryan | August 21, 2008 9:32 AM

Better yet, if MADD is so worried about drunk driving, why don't we just lower the drinking age to 16 and raise the driving age to 21?

Posted by: Ryan | August 21, 2008 9:33 AM

does it really matter? i mean stupid drunks of all ages get behind the wheel.

Posted by: NALL92 | August 21, 2008 10:25 AM

Hey, Marc, you should get them to put Raw Fisher on the WaPo home page rather than your article.

Posted by: Ryan | August 21, 2008 10:50 AM

The problem is not just binge drinking, but the restrictive campus policies make students go off campus to do it, which forces them to drive and brings about the very situation MADD wants to avoid.

Being able to do it on campus would still have a risk of binging, but would lower the risk of drinking and driving. And trying to outlaw (as they have for years) is working as well as our war on drugs.

College is about trying new things, and altering consciousness is something students will always want to try. It's better to expect it and deal with it instead of just making sure it doesn't happen on campus.

Posted by: Hemisphire | August 21, 2008 10:55 AM

Another problem is that 30 years ago, college "kids" acted more like the adults they are. Now, thanks to selfish and over-pampering baby boomers, college students act like stupid kids well into their 20's...

Posted by: JohnnyReb | August 21, 2008 11:31 AM

Lower the drinking age to 14, then let the Chesapeake Marching Bands go to Disney World and ride the rides completely trashed out of their minds. That way they can learn to drink responsibly and always have a designated driver.

Posted by: BoBW | August 21, 2008 12:49 PM

MADD is just a bunch of grief-stricken baby boomers utilizing the baby-boomer-belief that the best way to deal with negative emotions is to go out and do something. Extra points if it allows you to use the phrase "If it saves just one life, it's worth it!"

Posted by: Stick | August 21, 2008 1:15 PM

Completely agree with lowering the drinking age, and raising the driving age. Should be a no brainer.

And for all of those who complain - I really *do* think that we should raise the voting age to 21, also.

Oh, and Marc? You indicated that we are a democracy in your chat. We are not, we are a republic.

Posted by: atlmom | August 21, 2008 1:43 PM

We don't need a drinking age limit at all. The French allow their children to drink wine.

Posted by: We're behind | August 21, 2008 1:51 PM

I went to college when the drinking age was 18, and none of my peers learned to drive in moderation as a result. I don't see any reason to think lowering the drinking age will have any good results. I will probably cause 14 and 15 year olds to want to keep up with the 18 year olds even more.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2008 1:53 PM

I am like anon above a "binge driver". Please lower the price at the pump it's spoiling all the fun.

Posted by: Tom | August 21, 2008 2:59 PM

Um, 14 and 15 YOs are already drinking. What world are you living in?

Posted by: atlmom | August 21, 2008 5:02 PM

The drinking age was 21 when I was in college. I grew up with a mom who with her supervision, or knowing of my whereabouts, and rides, didn't forbid me to drink. Honestly, it made it less interesting. I did have my share of drinks, and did have some intoxicated nights, BUT they were fewer then many of my peers. I was often the designated driver, because my mom didn't forbid me to be at the party. I saw so many of my college friend just go nuts with drinking, and then say my parent's would be horrified if they even knew I had a sip of alchol. I wondered, and so did my mom ... how on earth can they be so blind. Instead those parent's chose to beleive that their child spent Saturday nights at the Library, and saw every damn movie there was out there. My mother instead smothered me with questions after a night out. I swear sometimes I should of just taken attendance, but I would of NEVER gotten away with any of the lies my friends got a way with. So instead I was honest with my mom, I had zero fear to call her if I did need a ride, she always knew where I was, who I was with, and what was going on. And, I never really went nuts, and would of never dreamed of driving after drinking or getting in the car with someone. Instead I chose not to drink when I saw my friend I drove with start to drink b/c they had their parent's car and would choose to drive after drinking vs. the chance their parents might find out they went to a party & drank & could not drive home. I often drove a friends car home, and quickly switched seats with them before getting out of the car. Being a mother now, I want to teach my children responsible drinking (if the interest is there for them, there is not much we can do to revert that) I want to prevent my children from even the slightest attempt to get into a vehicle with someone who has been drinking, OR worst after they have. I want them to have all the comfort in the world to call me, AND I want to know at every minute where they are, who they are with, and what their plan of event is. I don't think our problem is the drinking age, I think it's about taking time to know your teenage kids, know their friends, and their friends families. Know where they are (where they really are), and what they plan to do. THEN be there for them & TEACH them how to be responsible with it. There is never a need to get highly intoxicated. When I finished college I wasn't yet 21 ... there was NOTHING for me as an adult to do on a Friday and Saturday night, when I wanted to go out. There were some great teen nights on Sunday, but I worked! I was an adult! All I wanted was to beable to go to an adult friendly place & have a few social drinks with friends & not some high school party that I was now feeling too old for.

Posted by: Emlis | August 21, 2008 7:44 PM

atlmom,

14 and 15yo have been drinking since at least 1973 when I was 14yo. Please start living in the real world they are also having sex and do drugs etc and have been since 1973. Yes your kids not the neighbors. Your daughter may swallow unlike her mom. Get your head out of the sand.

And they are using your medicine cabinet with your prescription drugs to get high. Something we didnt do back in the early 70's. Mohter's little helper.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 6:33 AM

Honestly, I liked the rule in place at my college (not in MD, although I think there are a few around here that have them too). Was called a Good Samaritan Rule, which basically said that if you call student health with a drunk student, neither you nor the patient gets in trouble from the college/security for drinking underage (if they find someone passed out, yeah they get in trouble, but if you come forward and get the person help, no foul for either of you).

A lot fewer kids died of alcohol poisoning in the years since that was instituted since they got medical attention when they needed it.

People are going to be stupid. The best we can do is realize this fact and try to build in some safeguards so that the stupidity doesn't cost some kids their very lives.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 10:58 AM

When the drinking age was 18, one of the arguments for raising it was that 18-year-olds were buying alcohol for younger kids.
The problem is that a great many Americans believe that intoxication is the only reason that one drinks alcohol. What's the point in moderating your consumption of something that tastes so bad?
These college presidents want to lower the drinking age so that their schools will not be held responsible for student drunkenness.

Posted by: Enver Hoxha | August 23, 2008 8:41 AM

Wouldn't it make more sense to pick age 19 ? Then at least you wouldn't have LEGAL drinkers at High school proms.

Posted by: jmsbh | August 25, 2008 11:23 AM

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