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The Drinking Age Debate Reopens

October 2008
by Hudson Cattell
Twenty-four years ago, all 50 states set their legal drinking age at 21, partly because of a federal threat to cut highway funds by 10% to any state that didn't comply with the age limit. At that time, Wine East termed the threat "blackmail," because that was exactly what it was, and called for education as the best way to encourage responsible drinking and solve the problems of alcohol abuse.

Last June, convinced that the drinking age of 21 is not working, a group of college presidents and chancellors created the Amethyst Initiative and called upon elected officials to support an informed and dispassionate public debate about the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age. A statement that now has 129 signatures pointed out that a culture of dangerous binge drinking has developed, and that alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral changes.

While their statement falls short of calling for an end to the mandatory drinking age of 21, they believe that it is clearly something that must be debated. One consideration, and a key one, is to invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

The Amethyst Initiative got its start in June, when John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont, spoke to representatives from 120 liberal arts colleges about the effects of the current drinking age of 21. A common desire was expressed to open public debate about the drinking age and invite other colleges and universities to join the effort. They chose Amethyst Initiative as their name (in Greek mythology, the amethyst wards off intoxication) and drafted a statement to express their views.

Predictably, there has been criticism of the Amethyst Initiative. Mothers Against Drunk Driving not only says that lowering the drinking age will lead to more car accidents, but also that parents should think carefully about the safety of the colleges signing on. Much of the opposition to lowering the drinking age is because of the idea that alcohol abuse would reach high school students and young people not going to college.

In 1984, when we ran our editorial on the need for education, we stated that if the law were strictly observed, the young person reaching the age of 21 would have little practical knowledge of the use or abuse of alcohol. In most cases, he or she would have left home and be out of school, away from the two influences that could provide the most guidance.

License to drink

One of the ideas that we presented was the concept of a drinking license that could be obtained by those under the age of 21. Like a driving permit, it would be applied for on a voluntary basis and a license issued only after appropriate education. The license would be revocable until age 21, should the privilege be abused in any way. With the revocation for violators lasting to age 21, the incentive to keep the license plus the education received should go a long way toward curbing alcohol abuse then and later in life. Assuming that the earliest age for applying for the license would be the spring of the senior year in high school, the resources of the home and the school would both be available to reinforce the educational effort.

We really didn't expect our editorial to start a swing in public opinion, and it didn't. Now, perhaps the Amethyst Initiative can find a way to come up with innovative ideas that will start a serious debate among our elected lawmakers.

Years ago, for example, Millersville University in Millersville, Pa., conducted a voluntary controlled drinking education program in cooperation with the Pennsylvania State Police. Participants were given an alcoholic beverage at regular intervals. After each drink, they were given tests so that they could experience the effects of alcohol on themselves. If they reached the limit at which they could not drive safely, a state policeman would take them home. The program was an eye-opening experience for those who participated, and most of them stated they had learned a lesson for life.

While membership in Amethyst Initiative is currently limited to college and university presidents and chancellors, they ask anyone who would like to become part of this larger effort to sign up. Contact them by mail: P.O. Box 507, Middlebury, VT 05753; telephone: (802) 398-2024; fax: (802) 398-2029 or e-mail:
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