Some 128 college and university presidents have lent their names to a statement questioning the wisdom of the national 21-year-old minimum drinking age. This has re-ignited a long-simmering debate about our nation’s approach to the vexing problems of drunk driving and alcohol abuse.
In 1984, Congress chose to attack these two related (but in many ways different) problems with a law that effectively trumped states’ rights to decide their own alcohol policies. The law stipulated that any state that not abiding by a 21-year-old minimum drinking age (referred to here as Legal 21) would forfeit ten percent of its federal highway funds. In most cases, that is an enormous sum of money no state can afford to relinquish. By 1988, all 50 states had fallen into line.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and its many friends in Washington hailed the law as a great triumph, claiming in the years since that Legal 21 alone has since been saving between 900 and 1,000 lives a year on the nation’s highways. Never mind that during those same years, seatbelts and airbags were made mandatory. Never mind that a worthy and widely absorbed series of public service ads were aired promoting designated drivers. Never mind that at last count, it was people 21 and older who caused nearly 90% of the drunk driving fatalities in the U.S.. As far as MADD and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statisticians are concerned, Legal 21—and Legal 21 alone—deserved all the credit for what was for the first five or six years anyway a significant drop in alcohol-related highway fatalities.
A few flies have surfaced in this ointment of success, however. After 1992, the decline in highway drunk driving deaths came to a halt. Indeed, alcohol-induced highway fatalities hit a ten-year high in 2006. But of equal if not greater significance, and with alarming insidiousness, another trend began to reveal itself—particularly on America’s college campuses, which represent the greatest concentrations of 18- to 20-year-olds who are by every other legal measure considered adults in American society. These “underage” citizens, utilizing all their wits and wile, manage to get their hands on alcohol anyway, and, in order to evade prosecution, are ferreting it off to clandestine sites—their dorm rooms, off-campus apartments, the woods behind the field house—where they drink it with a ferocity many longtime observers of the college scene (including college presidents) say they did not see in the decades before Legal 21.
As research for my book, Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), I spent much of 2003-04 on a dozen college and university campuses—a mixture of big, small, public and private institutions ranging from Harvard and Hamilton to Wisconsin/Madison and Cal/Berkeley—examining the changes that had taken place in college culture since I was an undergraduate in the late sixties. I found that much had changed, most disturbing of which was that colleges seemed no longer to view their students as emerging adults so much as problem children in need of constant supervision and support. And on closer examination, I found that much of this frankly infantilizing attention was motivated by fear that these young people were much at risk of hurting themselves and by legal extension, the institutions that harbored them.
At the heart of this fear was alcohol, the acknowledged drug of choice, and the fact that vast numbers of students (as well as 18- to 20-year-olds not in college) were flouting the law and doing so with a vengeance. Drinking as a part of a social event had been replaced by a pattern of drinking before social events. “Pre-gaming,” a term not in use in my college days, had crept into the lexicon of campus life sometime in the nineties. It meant sitting in a room, doors closed if not locked, knocking back shots of hard liquor in order to get a buzz on before venturing out to parties. All too often, it also meant the beginning of a siege of “binge” drinking that would lead to inebriation, sometimes stupor, sometimes the emergency room, sometimes death. I discovered that hospitalizations for alcohol detox had become routine on the campuses of even the most academically renowned schools. In a two-month period alone, Harvard’s campus medical center admitted 45 students because they had OD-ed on booze.
Now, many of those who preside over these campuses have signed something called the Amethyst Initiative, agreeing that they believe, as I do, that Legal 21 is not working; that dangerous drinking and disrespect for the law (almost identical, by the way, to the culture that emerged during Prohibition in the 1920s) has become the norm. The nation, they aver, needs to re-examine its policies objectively and dispassionately.
The reaction to the Amethyst Initiative by MADD and other proponent of Legal 21 has been to slam these college presidents, to assert that they are simply ducking their responsibility to enforce the law and to imply that any college run by an Amethyst endorser must be a dangerous place to send one’s child. These well-funded defenders of the current law (MADD has a budget of more that $50 million) have been spamming the e-mail boxes of signers and have succeeded in browbeating a few into removing their names from the statement.
Contrary to MADD’s strident assertions, these college presidents have for decades been pumping resources into the fight against dangerous alcohol consumption, using every available weapon in their arsenal. They have tried crackdowns that inevitably lead to more clandestine (hence more dangerous) drinking. They have mandated education about the risks of drinking from Day One of orientation. They have introduced comprehensive Harm Reduction programs that include sophisticated “social norms” campaigns. And most especially, they have hired legions of student affairs specialists, including alcohol awareness trainers and counselors, to quell the cultural rebellion. “Boots on the ground,” as the generals would say.
The results are patent. It’s not working, which brings us back to the Amethyst Initiative. I suggest that a wiser response from MADD and from the federal government would be to join these presidents in a careful re-examination of policy. MADD and Amethyst endorsers have much common ground: they both want to instill a sense of moderation and responsibility in young people as they experiment with alcohol. They both want to keep people who have had too much to drink out of the driver’s seat. They both want to hasten the transition from adolescence to adulthood. What better way to do that then to treat them as adults—and then hold them to that standard?