Monday, October 06, 2008

Amethyst Initiative vs. Choose Responsibility

I support Choose Responsibility, a national movement to create drinking licenses for 18, 19, and 20 year olds. It was the brainchild of John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College. Last year McCardell was invited to speak to the group of liberal arts college presidents that includes Middlebury about the CR idea. What came of this discussion was the Amethyst Initiative, a call by some 130 college presidents to rethink the drinking age. CR promotes the Amethyst idea.

The news stories about the Amethyst Initiative have said it calls to end the 21 drinking age, shifting back to 18, as many states used to do. This requires federal action, because Congress tied every state's highway funds to setting the drinking age to 21.

I think it would be a bad idea to simply reduce the drinking age. I expect that McCardell saw the Amethyst idea as "half a loaf," a way to get his peer presidents to at least talk about the idea publicly. I worry, though, that a half-hearted and sluggish effort to simply reduce the drinking age, without getting something in return, will doom the drinking license idea.

The 21 drinking age has failed spectacularly and relentlessly. This is true on college campuses and off. Alcohol has always been part of human society since it was first discovered, and always will be. Our best shot at civilizing alcohol is to have the adults teach the kids how to drink in moderation. Hence, drinking licenses.

Clear away the Amethyst Initiative. On with the real debate.


Kerri said...

i agree with drinking licenses!
if nothing else... it would help de-mystify the appeal of drinking, and so greatly reduce episodes of binge drinking, i think.
drinking becomes a lot less rebellious when you can buy it yourself and there's not much to scheme/orchestrate-- and so one is less likely to "make the most" of a chance to drink and do something he/she'd regret.

Marty said...

The 21 drinking age has failed spectacularly and relentlessly.

By what measure do you make this claim? I guess it should be obvious, if it's "spectacular and relentless", but it's not. Please provide supporting data.

But let me ask you. Rhetorically speaking, what would be the difference between "succeeded modestly" and "failed spectacularly"? Would that be something quantifiable? Or merely the product of a glass half-full / half-empty perspective?

Anonymous said...


If I were missing all my fingers, I could still count on one hand the number of people I know who waited until 21 to start drinking alcohol. I think that's what Dr. Weston means by "failed spectacularly and relentlessly." A nearly invisible minority waits until 21 to have their first real drinking experience (and I'm not talking about a sip with Mom and Dad at Christmas). I myself didn't start drinking until I was 19 after I completed freshman year. I considered myself to be one of the "good kids," yet I still drank before my 21st birthday.

Gruntled said...

To take just one example, from the alcohol site, "A four-year study of college alcohol and drug use, Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America's Colleges and Universities, reveals that each month 49 percent of full-time college students, about 3.8 million, binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs. In 2005, approximately 1.8 million of those students, 22.9 percent, met the medical criteria for substance abuse and dependence.

In the general population, an estimated 8.5 percent meet the criteria for substance abuse and dependence, making the proportion almost three times higher for college students."

The great majority of those college drinkers are under 21. The drinking rates for 18 - 20 year olds who are not in college is not as well studied, but it is not better controlled.

Moreover, the study cited above indicates that binge drinking -- not moderate drinking -- has increased over the past decade or so on college campuses.

Marty said...

If the average age for first-time drinkers was raised from, say 16 to 17, then the change in the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 could be seen as "marginally successful".

That binge drinking has increased on college campuses over the past 10 years may or may not say anything about the success or failure of the drinking age -- which was increased 20 years ago.

My point is that you cannot call seriously call something a "spectacular failure" unless you actually attempt to measure success. There are lots of indicators we could look at: drunk driving arrests, arrests for underage drinking, hospital admissions for alcohol abuse, surveys of teens both in and outside of college...

My guess is that raising the drinking age HAS had a net positive effect. But it's just a guess.

Gruntled said...

It is illegal for teens to drink alcohol. Most do. Many do to huge excess. I would call that a spectacular failure.

jim_l said...

All of the assertions thrown about here have no basis or a based purely on anecdotal evidence (e.g. "everybody I know" is not a statistical sample). Lowering the drinking age to 18 is most likely going to increase the binge drinking problem at the high school level. Many seniors are 18 or will turn 18, thereby providing a legal and easier avenue to obtaining alcohol. The idea of drinking licenses is laughable at best. Think about it. If underage people currently have access to alcohol, why wouldn't non-licensed people have access in the the same manner? Will frat parties at colleges cease and turn into quiet wine and cheese social gatherings? How does a license de-mystify the appeal of drinking? Anyone remember Animal House? The drinking age was 18 when that was made. As for the education aspect, what makes anyone think that human behaviors will change regarding educating kids on alcohol? Lowering the age accomplishes none of that. Binge drinking is not an age problem, it is a cultural and maturity problem. High schools have enough problems to deal with. don't increase the alcohol problem there.

Gruntled said...

Most grownups learn how to drink in moderation. Currently, colleges have unilaterally disarmed in the fight to teach students how to drink in moderation. Licensing would give us a chance, which would certainly work with a certain proportion of students. Licenses also have the advantage over simply lowering the drinking age that you have something to lose if you abuse it -- much as a learner's permit moderates driving.