Discussion needed over drinking age

How do you measure a law's effectiveness? By its original intent? By how accurately it reflects social and cultural reality? By how well and widely it is observed? By how easily it is enforced? These are the questions now being raised as the National Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act of 1984 comes under new scrutiny.

The law is clear: if you are younger than 21, you may not consume alcohol. Yet the vast majority of young people, whether in college or not, consume alcohol long before they turn 21. Supporters of the law continue to invoke 'science;' those who question the law invoke 'experience.'

'Science' supports a law that makes abstinence and enforcement the only tools a parent or a university may employ on young violators, whose numbers are vast and whose ingenuity in avoiding detection is increasingly acute.

'Experience' suggests that 'just say no' is not the most effective way to enable young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

Yet 'science' can be tricky. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities reached a 10-year high in 2005. Fatalities in Puerto Rico, where the age is 18, dropped by 11 percent last year. Half of the peer-reviewed studies on the effect of the drinking age on fatalities show a positive correlation; and half show no correlation at all.

College and university presidents are on the front lines: 129 have signed on to The Amethyst Initiative. The initiative does not take a position on what the drinking age should be. But it does state that Legal Age 21 has wrought significant unintended consequences that simply must be examined with care. These include binge drinking; the possession of fake IDs; the frustrating difficulty of enforcement; and the ineffectiveness of the abstinence-only message.

The drinking age has effectively banished alcohol from public places and public view. But it has done little to reduce drinking. If you were to design the ideal location for binge drinking, you would not design a student union, a dining hall, a restaurant or any public gathering place. You would instead design a locked dorm room, an off-campus apartment, a farmer's field, in short, a place conducive to clandestine behavior.

And that is exactly where binge drinking is taking place, in the most risky of environments. Ironically, the more successful a college is in enforcing the law - carding underage drinkers, braceleting those of legal age, limiting quantities, posting campus security - the greater the likelihood that alcohol consumption will simply move to a place out of campus sight and often beyond campus boundaries, effectively placing that behavior out of reach of campus authority.

The result? More than 1,000 lives of 18- to 24 year-olds are being lost each year to alcohol off the highways, and this number is increasing.

Supporters of the law continue to urge abstinence and enforcement. Such an approach makes no allowance for human judgment or discretion, for a consideration of the unique circumstances that surround every incident that ultimately becomes another impersonal piece of data. The 129 Amethyst presidents find these limitations immensely frustrating. They inhibit their institutions' ability to do what they do best, which is to educate.

Not everyone may agree that the drinking age should be changed. But it is hard to argue against discussion and debate.

The extraordinary public reaction to the Amethyst Initiative suggests that the debate needs to happen; that opinion is not all on one side of the question; and thus that the question is thus far from settled.

That is why 129 courageous academic leaders have put the Amethyst statement forward and why the debate that ensues will lead to public policy that reflects the reality of the lives young adults lead.

John McCardell is the former president of Middlebury College and president and founder of Choose Responsibility.

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