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Q and A: Taking a hard look at the Amethyst Initiative

by: , Phil Creighton

Phil Creighton, president of Pacific University in Forest Grove, was one of the original 100 presidents to sign the Amethyst Initiative. Two others from Oregon, Thomas J. Hochstettler of Lewis and Clark College in Portland and M. Lee Pelton of Willamette University in Salem also signed the document, which calls for 'an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.'

For Creighton, the motivation was partly personal. Before coming to Pacific in 2004, he served as president of Eastern Oregon University where, during his tenure, a student was killed in a car accident after a night of drinking.

Recently, Creighton sat down with John Schrag of the Pamplin Media Group to discuss the initiative.

Here are some excerpts:

Q: According to a recent editorial in The Oregonian, you used 'dangerously sophomoric conclusions' to advocate lowering the drinking age. What did you think you signed?

A: It was a promise by university presidents to work together open a dialogue about alcohol, particularly the issue of binge drinking.

Q: So it wasn't a call to let people drink at 18?

A: No. That was never a point of discussion. I don't know what the appropriate drinking age is and I don't know if a roll back would be good or bad. But we ought to talk about it. There's a feeling that we need discussion. And, as someone with a science background, I think we need to have that discussion with proper knowledge.

Q: There seems to be concern about '21 on 21' a tradition of people attempting to drink 21 shots or 21 beers on the day they can legally drink alcohol. Is that real, or is it a campus myth?

A: From what I hear from my colleagues, it's very real. And it's very, very reckless. Now, it may not be as widespread as some think, but when it occurs it's deadly. I learned that at Eastern Oregon and I never want to do that again.

Q: Well, would '18 on 18' be any less reckless?

A: I think that's the wrong question. I'd say, 'let's look at other cultures.' In some European countries, such as Germany, beer or wine is available, in moderation, to people at a fairly young age. When you allow drinking in moderation, then the 'forbidden fruit' aspect of drinking at college is lifted.

Q: So how do you determine the right age?

A: Well, start by acknowledging that there's already drinking in high school. There's drinking in junior high. That's why our call was simply for a serious discussion, with science-based (information) on the affects of alcohol use by young people.

Q: Yet, at least at The Oregonian editorial board, your initiative met with some skepticism. Have there been other critics?

A: Oh yes. It's been seen across the country, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which I thought would be our ally. At the same time, we had an orientation event here (recently) and several students came up and said, 'Thanks for bringing this to the table. We need to talk about it.'

A view from the Review's Youth Board

Whenever this debate is brought up, the most common point seems to be: 'Well, in France and other countries in Europe, the drinking age is 16.'

But we feel that it isn't about the age one starts drinking; it is about the perceptions in the person's head - why he or she is drinking.

In Europe, drinking complements the food and is treated almost as a sacred event. Meanwhile, in the U.S., people drink mainly to get drunk. So in order to have positive effects from lowering the drinking age, we feel that cultural perceptions would have to change first.

In Lake Oswego, we have seen that students start drinking way before college - some even beginning underage drinking in middle school. We feel that regardless of what the drinking age is, high school students (especially those under the age of 18) would still consider drinking as something to do to be 'rebellious' and to get 'wasted.'

However, there is potential for good with the Amethyst Initiative. It's possible that once the drinking age is lowered, alcohol will cease to become a mysterious, forbidden elixir, and lose the 'cool dangerousness' attached to drinking.

Additionally, one danger of underage drinking is when someone injures himself or herself but is too afraid to go seek help because of the legal repercussions. With the drinking age lowered, we think people could be treated and lives could even be saved, without fear of penalty.

Regardless whether the drinking age changes, underage drinking is an issue that needs to be discussed.

2007-2008 Youth Board members

- Jacob O'Gara, Jenna Conan, Zane Sparling, Rishi Rajani and Oliver Field