September 15, 2013

GUEST ROOM: Rethinking The Drinking Age

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Complete the following list: Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Micronesia, Palau.

Did you get it? Here’s some help: Add the United States, and you have completed a list of all the countries with a 21 year-old drinking age — everywhere else it’s either lower or alcohol is illegal altogether. In fact, the U.S. has the highest drinking age in all of North America, South America, Europe and Africa besides Libya and Sudan, where alcohol is outlawed.

Just 30 years ago, we were in line with the rest of the international community. But then came Richard Nixon, the signer of the National Minimum Age Drinking Act of 1984 and the author of the war on drugs mentality that has all but been considered a failure. Not surprisingly, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 70 percent of 18 year-olds have consumed at least one drink, and the average underage drinker reports having about five drinks in one setting.

What we end up with is nothing short of a disaster. Drinking has been pushed underground, to the dorm rooms and frat houses, where binging is not only required to avert law enforcement, but also has warped into a new social norm. Worse yet, youngsters have come to feel alienated by a legal system that clearly fails to represent them, so they buy fake IDs and enlist older folks to act as their alcohol straw purchasers.

In a perfect world, the law would be reasonable enough for people to follow. We would reclaim the regulatory system, instead of encouraging lawless behavior that we cannot expect to stop. We would stop criminalizing otherwise honorable, smart college students, and would allow drinking to take place out in the open, where it is often done more safely. Most importantly, we would stop threatening young adults who are often too scared to ask for help when it is genuinely needed.

Granted, getting grandiose policies through Congress isn’t exactly the easiest task at the moment, especially if it involves repealing a three-decade-old, popular piece of legislation. But fortunately, there’s a simple step that can be taken that would go quite a long way, and it rests in the hands of our president: David Skorton.

The Amethyst Initiative, founded in 2008, is a nationwide effort calling on our elected officials “to support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.” Amethyst circulates a petition to university presidents trying to build support, and so far, they have 136 signatures.

James Wright, the Dartmouth College President is thus far the only Ivy League president to get behind this effort. Adding Skorton’s name to the list would provide just the kind of prestige and legitimacy that is so desperately needed. It’s really easy: Just visit, print the statement, sign it, and mail it off to D.C.

President Skorton, surely you do not wish to stand beside President Nixon in history. Now’s your chance to engrave your name not on the side of force and coercion, but with justice and reason.

Jess Coleman is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.