by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Inevitably in policy debates one side or the other compares the U.S. with Europe. From health care and insurance to passenger rail to taxes, Europeans are held up as either the example (usually by the Left) or counter-example (usually the Right).
I’m not one who turns to the Old World for guidance on much of anything other than examples of what not to do (refugee immigration policy being the latest), but there is one thing that the Europeans get right and that we got wrong in 1984 when we raised the minimum drinking age to 21 years old. It’s time to follow the Europeans on this issue.
In most countries the drinking age is 18, but we raised it nationally to 21 with the stroke of Ronald Reagan’s pen. The bill had passed both houses of Congress unanimously, and the Feds used the threat of withholding eight percent of a state’s highway funds if it didn’t comply. Here’s yet another example of why I distrust bi-partisan legislation and loathe using federal money to “entice” states into giving up Tenth Amendment rights.
The minimum drinking age issue doesn’t feature into the current election season, though I suspect that if asked at least Rand Paul and Ted Cruz would speak against the anti-Constitutional “bribery” used to impose Federal policy. And while not a third rail political issue, most politicians would rather avoid bringing down upon them the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (as if there are any other kind) for little political gain. Though Bernie Sanders is hoping otherwise with his free-to-you education and social agenda, 18-20 year olds aren’t much of a political force, and trying to rationally discuss the merits of a lowered drinking age is usually met with MADD’s shouting points.
And yet New Hampshire is one of three states looking at returning the drinking age to 18 under certain conditions. Under bills in NH and Minnesota, beer and wine could be consumed by 18-20 year olds when accompanied by somebody over the age of 21 while in a commercial establishment. (Think of a father and son having a beer after work, or a family at a restaurant celebrating an 18-year-old’s college acceptance or enlistment in the military.) In California, the age would simply be lowered to 18 for all alcohol. None of these bills are likely to pass. Nor should they at this point.
Returning the drinking age to 18 is supported by about 25 percent of Americans nationally. That number has been rising, but it’s nowhere near where it needs to be to justify change. It is high enough, though, to support calls for honest dialog. For too long the discussion has been dominated by much of the same discredited rhetoric employed to foist the Eighteenth Amendment on America. But the movement to open up the old debate using new data has an unexpected ally: the Amethyst Initiative.
Though it sounds like the title of a Ken Follett spy novel or a classified intelligence program leaked on Hillary Clinton’s private email server, the Amethyst Initiative is a group of 136 chancellors and presidents of universities who support “informed and unimpeded debate on the 21-year-old drinking age.” The Initiative, founded in 2008, recognizes that “the problem of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses.” It’s hard to argue with that.
But of course people do. Despite centuries of evidence that a government’s outlawing of something doesn’t make it go away, some people turn to evidence of correlation to prove causation. Yes, drunk driving has been reduced since 1984, but the causes can be traced more convincingly to changing the threshold of impairment from 0.10 to 0.08, increasing awareness through public information campaigns, increasing penalties for drunk driving, increasing enforcement including police check points, and the nation’s reduced per capita alcohol consumption since 1984.
On the other side of the ledger, a 2015 Fact Sheet from the Centers for Disease Control reported:
• 12 to 20 year-olds drink 11% of all alcohol consumed, 90% consumed in the form of binge drinks
• Underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adults
• Among high school students, during the past 30 days, 35% drank some amount of alcohol, 21% binge drank, 10% drove after drinking, and 22% rode with a driver who had been drinking
Clearly our 18-20 year-old alcohol Prohibition isn’t working. It’s time to talk about alternatives.
Ken Gorrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.