When you live near UW–Platteville, you get to see a lot of students, on the way to or from campus (since students live in nearly every part of Platteville), as well as, at night, on the way to or from … other places.
At the risk of jinxing ourselves on Commencement Weekend, when you will be shocked — shocked! — to find that parties are going on, it seems time to have an intelligent conversation about the national drinking age.
That conversation was to be started by the Amethyst Initiative, which was signed by more than 100 college presidents and chancellors, including the then-heads of Loras College in Dubuque, Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Lake Forest College in Illinois, Ripon College and UW–Parkside, all of whom argued 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 apparently has morphed into Choose Responsibility, which proposes a “drinking license” for 18- to 20-year-olds and undoing the de facto national drinking age law. The drinking age is 21 across the U.S. not because Congress passed a law mandating a national drinking age, but because Congress passed a law withholding 10 percent of federal highway funds to states that didn’t pass a 21-year-old drinking age. Wisconsin and Louisiana were the last two states to grudgingly change their drinking age from 19 (up from 18 in 1984 in Wisconsin’s case) to 21.
The presidents argued that “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students. Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer. By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.”
That statement was made in the late 2000s, but what has changed about that statement today? Read pages 8B and 9B of your favorite weekly newspaper and you can see the accumulation of underage drinking citations those younger than 21 accumulate. UW–Platteville is fortunate that, unlike other UW campuses, there hasn’t been a tragedy involving a student and excessive drinking here … so far.
Advocates of the 21-year-old drinking age claim that 1,000 lives have been saved each year by the higher drinking age, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Choose Responsibility counters that more than 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds “die each year of alcohol-related causes other than traffic accidents,” and that the 21-year-old drinking age has not prevented deaths, but delayed them — “every claim of an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old life ‘saved’ as a result of Legal Age 21 is offset by the number of 21-, 22-, or 23-year-old lives lost.”
Choose Responsibility also points out that “Four factors have combined powerfully (and dramatically more than Legal Age 21) to the decline of driving fatalities associated with alcohol: safer cars, higher awareness by drivers of all ages, greater utilization of a ‘designated driver,’ and more vigorous law enforcement.”
Choose Responsibility also notes, “Legal Age 21 has created an environment of excess consumption and goal-oriented drinking. While fewer individuals aged 18–20 are drinking, those who choose to drink are doing so at dangerous and alarming rates. … Brain development is complete around age 25; therefore, 21 is not a magic number. What puts individuals at greater cognitive risk is binge drinking, whose rates have only climbed.”
I am opposed to laws that encourage disrespect for the law. That would include laws that are unenforceable, and that is a long list. The 21-year-old drinking age certainly can be enforced if the police find underage drinkers, which is how the 21-year-old drinking age encourages evasion of the law in unsafe ways — parties off back roads, for example, or friends of someone who has imbibed too much refusing to reveal how much their friend has consumed lest they get into trouble themselves.
The Journal’s coverage of this area’s heroin problem has included comments from addiction experts, medical professionals and law enforcement that suggest that a man determinant in whether someone becomes addicted to something, whether or not that something is illegal, is genetic. Recall the story of the mother of three heroin addicts, whose ex-husband, the sons’ father, was an alcoholic.
Right up there, though, is the example parents set for their children. That example is the example that’s in the back of students’ minds when students come to Platteville or another university, away from home for an extended period for the first time in their adult lives, with no parents telling them not to drink.
Since college student-age adults generally don’t vote, this debate probably won’t take place, even though it should. For one thing, we’re sending people not young enough to drink into harm’s way overseas representing our country, and possibly dying for our country.