Lower Drinking Age?

Would lowering the drinking age to 18 reduce the amount of binge drinking on college campuses? The Amethyst Initiative, started by the former president of Middlebury College, believes it would, as reported in College chiefs urge new debate on drinking age. The Initiative, represents presidents from about 100 colleges and universities, is “calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18.” The proposal carries counter-intuitive appeal: reduce problem drinking by reducing legal impediments to acquiring and possessing alcohol. Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposes the proposal because it believes it would lead to more fatal car crashes; “MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.”

I don’t know what impact a lower drinking age would have on binge drinking on campuses. Doing so would remove the forbidden-fruit allure of under-age drinking for those over 18, and that would somewhat change the social dynamic that leads to problem drinking. Since both typically occur when one is 18 alcohol consumption would still be linked to going off to college and experiencing greater freedom from adult supervision. One could argue that the drinking age should be lowered to 16, to enable teenagers to experience legal drinking when most are still living under their parents’ roofs. The causes of binge drinking are complex and drinking age is just one factor.

This topic comes up often in class. Not surprisingly, most students oppose the current laws. Students routinely ignore and subvert them. Anecdotal experience tells me that more than 50% of underaged students possess a phony ID at some point before they turn 21, which puts them at risk for arrest and a criminal record. Laws that criminalize a large number of people for customary behavior encourage disrespect for law: “when beer is outlawed, only outlaws will have beer.”

One cannot ignore MADD’s point about traffic fatalities. I believe (relying on someone I trust who researched this subject extensively a few years ago) there was a direct correlation between raising drinking ages to 21 and reducing alcohol-related fatalities. Opposing MADD is political suicide for state legislators.

This is unfortunate. It takes off the table solutions other than more rigorous law enforcement and stiffer penalties for underage drinkers. These don’t work, as our experience with harsher drug laws shows. It’s a plain fact that college students are going to drink. Solutions that don’t start with this fact–solutions of the “just say no” variety–are doomed to fail.