Written by Bryce Hagan
If you ask the average college student what they think the legal drinking age should be, chances are they wont tell you 21. Since it was raised from 18 by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, it has been a common source of complaint for young people across the country. This summer, some perhaps unlikely voices joined the 18-21 year-old crowd in the call for re-considering the minimum drinking age: their own college and university administrators.
The Amethyst Initiative (amethystinitiative.org) is a statement signed by college and university presidents that asks elected officials to engage in an “informed and dispassionate debate” over the effects of the 1984 legislation. It was started by John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College and a founder of Choose Responsibility (chooseresponsibility.org), a group which seeks to educate young adults about responsible alcohol use. According to McCardell, the current drinking age has lead to an atmosphere of dangerous, secretive binge drinking among many college students, and actually contributes to more problems than it helps prevent. The Initiative suggests that the standing policy has done little to curtail drunk driving, sexual assault, and other social problems associated with alcohol use. The signatories of the Amethyst Initiative equate this current attitude to that of abstinence-only sexual education, in that simply forbidding underage students not to drink is unrealistic and doesn’t contribute to solving the problem of alcohol abuse.
Evidence of underage drinking, especially binge drinking, on college campuses is not hard to come by (or rather, ignore) Binge drinking is medically defined as consuming 5 or more beverages in one session (4 or more for women), but it is often more candidly described as “drinking to get drunk.” A 1997 study conducted by the Harvard School of Health found that 50 percent of college males reported binge drinking at least once within a two-week period, compared with about 40 percent of females. For members of a sorority or fraternity, the percentages are closer to 80 percent. The consequences of such statistics are readily apparent to college officials and medical professionals: 1700 people between the age of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries.
But the opponents of the Amethyst Initiative say that many more would die if the drinking age were lowered back to 18. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the organization that successfully lobbied congress to pass the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in the first place, cites an estimated 21,000 lives that have been saved from drunk driving in the last 24 years. Probably the greatest obstacle facing the Initiative, however, is the legislation itself, which imposes a 10 percent penalty on the highway budget of any state that does not have a minimum drinking age of 21. This means that, while it is within the power of state governments to set their own drinking age, any action to do so is unlikely because no legislature would move to take such a drastic cut in transportation funding. The highway appropriation penalty is recognized by revisionists as probably the greatest impediment to open discussion and re-consideration of the Drinking Age Act, because it places enormous pressure on necessary infrastructure and elected officials who might otherwise question the legislation.
And this is a far as the Amethyst Initiative goes: calling for discussion and open debate in a greater cultural and national context. It proposes no changes to legislation, or revision to current alcohol-education programs on college campuses. Many of it’s members belong to the Annapolis Group, a group of about 120 liberal arts schools. The movement was actually started as a result of a talk given by McCardell to the Annapolis Group, which includes Southwestern in it’s ranks. When contacted about the Initiative, President Jake Schrum said that he has been aware of it since it’s conception, but would not be adding Southwestern to the list of signatories.
This doesn’t affect the fact that nearly all college campuses (including SU) recognize alcohol use and it’s effects as an important matter of discussion. Never before have upper-level administrators become so explicitly and vocally involved in the debate, however, and this suggests a degree of significance in the Initiative, and also the problems it hopes to face. Though the document is directed at elected officials and policy-makers, the Amethyst Initiative is ultimately attempting to challenge the entire country to examine and re-define the role alcohol plays in culture and individual lives.