Monday, August 25, 2008

OPINION: Lower The Drinking Age

I recently read that as many or more people are killed crossing at marked crosswalks than jay-walking. It got me thinking about all those jay-walking stings – you know, where the police lay in wait for people to cross the street.

In July more than 100 college presidents took an important step toward backing away from that kind of criminalizing barrage on Americans by suggesting we lower the drinking age to 18. It’s called the Amethyst Initiative and it was begun by John McCardell, the former President of Middlebury College in Vermont.

The website says:

These higher education leaders have signed their names to a public statement that the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses.

The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.

Those locally who have supported the idea include (1, 2, 3):

  • Paul Smith’s College President Dr. John Mills
  • Clinton Community College, Interim President Dr. Frederick Woodward
  • Clarkson University President Anthony G. Collins
  • St. Lawrence University President Daniel F. Sullivan
  • Hamilton College President Joan Hinde Stewart
  • Plattsburgh State President Dr. John Ettling “feels the idea deserves serious consideration”

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Robert Clarke and University of Massachusetts System President Jack M. Wilson also signed on.

MADD is, well, mad. They still argue that raising the drinking age in 1984-1988 is what has reduced alcohol related deaths among 16 to 20 year-olds (why 16 and not 18?) some 60 percent since 1990 – though they have risen over the past ten. I’ll bet the cause is more likely the stricter DWI enforcement and penalties – the bottom line is young people need to learn from their elders what responsible drinking is about.

Chicago’s Mayor Daley (son of Richard “the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder” Daley) is also mad:

You think the president of the university is gonna open a beer hall in his house? Do you think the coach of the baseball team or football team will open it up? They should raise their standards and think that drinking is not part of college life. … Everybody has responsibility on this and drinking at universities isn’t something you should be proud of. … You don’t send your son or daughter to learn how to drink at universities. You send ‘em for an education.

According to the more civilized discussion points in the piece:

More than 40 percent of college students reportedly show at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. And every year, more than 500,000 full-time students at four year colleges suffer injuries tied in some way to excess drinking.

I’ll go with Peter McWilliams – a man who really understood these issues and who once wrote:

It is the law’s job to protect innocent people from likely harm to their person or property. It is not the law’s job to protect adults from the risks of their own consensual acts.

In case you still have any doubt that criminalizing drinking will make any real cultural difference, here is an article from the Ticonderoga Sentinel on backsliders in the Schroon Lake Temperance Society in 1884:

C. T. Leland has found an old book giving the facts concerning the organization
of the Schroon Lake Temperance Society in the year 1884, and gives the names of all members, business transacted, record of back-sliders, etc.

At the start 185 persons joined, altho we find that beside many names are written the words “withdrawn,” “older,” “drank,” “intoxicated” giving exact dates of each slip-up, while beside one name appears this amusing inscription “Mr. Benthusen,” “drank every time any body asked him,” and below that information some one had added these words, “Who could blame him.”

Who could indeed. Abstinence and enforcement have failed, it’s time for another approach.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.




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