Lower the Drinking Age

The current policy of a minimum legal drinking age of 21 has turned colleges, and even high schools, into modern speakeasies. Just as it did in the 1920s, prohibition has bred disrespect for the law and a dangerous environment for all involved. Away from parents and responsibilities, students can easily flout the law, with older students introducing freshman to the college culture of keg parties, binge drinking and hangovers.

Our current policy of trying to prevent those under 21 from consuming alcohol is a failure. The goal is to protect young people from the dangers of excessive alcohol use, but according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, “96% of the alcohol drunk by 15-20 year-olds is consumed when the drinker is having five or more drinks at a time.” Students have little trouble finding fake IDs or getting older friends to purchase their alcohol.

Most young adults will drink before they reach the age of 21, regardless of legal limitations. Therefore, the objective should be to encourage them to do so responsibly, not just when they are in college, but for the rest of their lives.

Returning the drinking age to 18, as a large number of college presidents are proposing, is the just and practical solution to America’s drinking problem.

According to John McCardell, director of Choose Responsibility, “A drinking age of 21 infantilizes students, encouraging immature behavior with alcohol and disrespect for law generally.” It also postpones alcohol education until a time when most young people have left home to seek jobs or attend college. Instead of learning lessons of temperance and responsibility from family members, young people are left to experiment on their own – and face legal redress for their unsanctioned behavior.

The 21 year-old drinking age ties the hands of parent and places them in an untenable position. Parents who adhere to state laws are prevented from introducing young adults to alcohol in a controlled home environment, relegating initial drinking experiences to settings where there is little or no supervision or guidance and a great deal of peer pressure to experiment.

Parents have two equally unattractive options: They must either ignore the reality of alcohol consumption among young people and forbid their children from drinking. Or they can break the law by serving alcohol to their under-21 children. That’s a difficult choice for responsible parents. Lowering the drinking age to 18, when young adults have not yet left home, would involve parents in the process of teaching their children how to make informed, healthy decisions about alcohol and its use. It would also mitigate (though not eliminate) the binge-drinking problem on college campuses.

Choose Responsibility also notes this practical reason to prefer a lower minimum drinking age and parental involvement. When states raised the legal drinking age to 21, they changed the rules so that young adults under 21 “must drink behind closed doors and drink quickly in fear of getting caught.” This type of drinking is often identified as a problem during college, but new data show that binge drinking is becoming more common later in life as well. By introducing young adults to alcohol in an unsupervised setting where the objective is to get as drunk as fast as possible our current policy encourages drinking practices that have negative, lifelong effects.

Professor Dwight Heath of Brown University is quoted in The Freeman explaining, “The choice is not between control and the absence of control. The important choice is between formal controls imposed from without, which restrict individual liberties and often trigger reactive asocial or anti-social patterns of behavior, and informal controls shared by other members of one’s community and likely to be not only accepted but highly valued by most people.”

Aside from any practical considerations, the legal drinking age is a matter of fairness. A legal age of 21 implies that anyone younger is not truly an adult, with adult responsibilities. But clearly, that is not the case; 18-year-olds have a right to marry, adopt children, serve as legal guardians for minors, purchase firearms and cigarettes, and are trusted with the vote and military responsibilities. Eighteen-year olds are legal adults in every other respect and they should be treated as such when it comes to consumption of alcohol, both with regards to rights and responsibilities.

It is unjust to deny young people the privileges of majority while conferring on them only the responsibilities. The law should not punish young adults for the act of drinking: something that is, at worst, a victimless crime and at best a completely harmless social practice. Instead, the law should focus on punishing the acts that harm others and society: drunk driving or other destructive behaviors that might be encouraged by intoxication.

Moreover, in nearly all cultures, alcohol consumption is coincident with the legal age of adulthood. Setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21 is out of step with the generally accepted societal norm of alcohol as accompaniment to maturity. Drinking should not be set apart as a taboo or illicit activity for those who are otherwise adults. Is it any wonder that the legal drinking age is one of the laws most often broken?

The lessons of Prohibition hold today: banning drinking does not eliminate it. Drinking that is relegated to today’s college speak-easies puts drinkers and innocent citizens at risk, fosters disrespect for the rule of law and encourages irresponsible behavior.

Returning the drinking age to 18 – not just for college students, but for everyone – is the only just and practical solution to America’s drinking problem. Lowering the drinking age, argues Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health, would help young adults “learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation,” not only for the present, but for the rest of their lives.

For those reasons, I applaud the college presidents for taking their stance.

To read Jay Schalin’s opposing article against the Amethyst Initiative: Keep the Drinking Age Where It Is