I never really had a hard time finding something to drink during those dark years between 16 and 21. Looking back, that was quite a feat considering I grew up in Pennsylvania with its draconian liquor laws where they don’t even sell beer in grocery or convenience stores (you have to go to a distributor). Don’t even think about wine or liquor, the state handles all those sales through its own chain of stores.
That said I was intrigued by this story on CNN today. It seems 114 college presidents have signed on to a statement by the Amethyst Initiative calling for a “dispassionate debate” on a topic only slightly less explosive than raising the qualifying age for Social Security.
The signers of the Amethyst statement want to *gasp* discuss lowering the drinking age from 21. They feel that instead of curtailing underage drinking it has created a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking.”
The Amethyst folks present the classic arguments: It doesn’t make sense that you can drive at 16, vote, serve on a jury, join the military and sign a contract at 18 but can’t buy booze until 21. I agree, and I also agree with them that having young people routinely disobey a law diminishes respect for the law (Prohibition anyone?).
These school leaders have accepted the fact that despite the state saying you have to be 21 to drink this doesn’t actually stop kids from drinking; it only makes them more creative in their pursuit of beer. And, really, how creative do you have to be in an environment where you’re bound to have at least one friend over 21.
I saw my share of binge drinking in the Southern Part of Heaven, Hell, I played rugby and I participated in more than my fair share of drink ups. But, and this is a gigantic “But,” I was a 24-year-old freshman who’d spent six years in the Marines before showing up in Chapel Hill. I’d already found my limit and knew exactly how to walk that line while drinking.
And, I must say, I did it well and often.
The key element in this part of my education was when my best friend looked at me one blurry Sunday morning and said, "Dew, I love you man, and I'm doing this because someone did it for me: You're a fucking asshole when you you get drunk."
And he was right. Bottle of Cuervo Gold + 22-year-old Marine = Instant (and aggressive) Asshole. I learned and learned quickly.
Many of my younger friends in Chapel Hill searched for the line I'd already found, and there are several occasions I remember being glad I was around when they badly misjudged their abilities (a certain before-classes party at Frat Court springs to mind.)
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, predictably, hit the roof with their response to the Amethyst Initiative.
“Maintaining the legal drinking age at 21 is a socially and medically sound policy that helps parents, schools and law enforcement protect our youth from the potentially life-threatening effects of underage drinking,” MADD stated on its Web site.
Personally, I think the Department of Transportation statistic MADD’s cites about how the 21 drinking age saves 1,000 lives a year is full of crap. I don’t think kids are drinking less, I just think they’re drinking and driving less. Because while drinking underage usually only get you a slap on the wrist, if you drink and drive you’re much more likely to find yourself spending some time in a cell becoming friends with Bubba or Darleen. (Unless, of course, you happen to be the star point guard of a national title contender. Then you get to watch a video and write a four-page paper.)
MADD cites almost 20-year-old stats on its Web site, so I went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its more recent point of view.
According to the CDC’s stats (what happened to the “P”?), alcohol-related fatalities for drivers between 16 and 17 have gone down 60 percent during the past 20 years, and 55 percent for those 18 to 20 during the same period. Those are pretty good numbers, keep em' away from the booze I say.
However, from 1991 to 2005 (sorry, best match I can come up with) CDC also reported in its National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of ninth- to 12th-graders, overall alcohol use in all three categories – lifetime use, current use and episodic heavy drinking – only decreased a total average of 6.9 percent.
And if you figure in their +/- factors, the numbers are even closer, a negligible 1.7 percent drop in high school-aged teens’ alcohol use.
I would also be more inclined to attribute many of those saved lives MADD claims to better engineered cars than to an arbitrary drinking age of 21. Anyone else think you might have a better chance of surviving a crash in a 2008 Civic compared to its 1988 grandfather? Yeah, me too.
Would lowering the drinking age make a difference? The Amethysts think it will by taking away alcohol’s mystique and making drinking less of a big deal. MADD, on the other hand, passionately believes the only thing keeping us safe from highways stained with teenagers’ blood is the 21 drinking age.
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. But, until we find that answer, kids are still going to lurk outside the beer distributor looking for just the right person to buy them those two cases of Bud they need for tonight’s party.
*A = not, Methustos = Intoxicated
It's the root of the word amethyst in case you skipped the links.