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An Amethyst in my Side

July 14, 2009 12:11 pm Published by 1 Comment

The Amethyst Initiative continues to concern me…

For those of you not aware, this initiative has been signed by 135 college presidents and chancellors asking for a discussion on lowering the drinking age. College presidents! The very people who deal with the effects of underage drinking more than anyone else are looking to lower the legal drinking age to 18.

The Amethyst Initiative has been attracting attention since it was introduced in 2008. In February of this year, the television show 60 Minutes interviewed both John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and the man behind the initiative, and Chuck Hurley, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). In this interview with correspondent Lesley Stahl, McCardell offers the same old, tired justifications for his misguided proposal — namely, if 18-year-olds are allowed to vote and go to war, why are they not allowed to drink?

In an August 2008 editorial in the Denver Post, “Let’s Chuck the Drinking Age,” columnist David Harsanyi chimes in:

It’s regularly pointed out that young adults can volunteer to serve in Iraq but are prohibited from buying a beer. But young adults are also free to produce children (many children). A young adult can plan the entire course of his or her life by the age of 21. A young adult can serve on a jury and determine the fate a fellow citizen. If a young adult chooses, he or she can act in pornographic films, gamble nightly, smoke several packs of cigarettes or, in some places, even engage in the truly depraved act of becoming a politician. Yet this same young adult is breaking the law when ordering an appletini?

While Harsanyi is correct in stating that young adults can gamble nightly, smoke, or act in pornographic films, does that make it right? And why is it that whenever someone like Harsanyi or McCardell speak on this topic, they ignore the evidence that when the drinking age was raised to 21, the number of fatalities linked to alcohol dropped significantly? According to the 60 Minutes transcript, here’s how McCardell tackled that inquiry from Stahl:

There are a list of impressive organizations that have lined up against you,” Stahl told John McCardell. “They feel that you have no data to back up what you’re saying. That what you’re proposing would be basically an experiment.”

“Well, I think that first of all we need to understand that lives are being put at risk off the highways in increasing numbers year by year as a result of this law,” McCardell replied.”

To emphasize this line of thought, McCardell continues by stating that the number of lives lost to alcohol by 18-24 year-olds is going up “at an alarming rate,” suggesting that the law may have reduced highway deaths attributed to alcohol, but have increased the number of off-highway deaths.

“It isn’t just about lives lost on the highways,” McCardell tells Stahl.

In something of a redeeming line of thought, McCardell offers the idea that alcohol education is what is needed, and that, he says, is a very important part of the initiative. According to Stahl’s report, McCardell suggests mandatory classes in high school that examine the chemistry of alcohol, the physical consequences of abuse, and sitting in on 12-step meetings. If students passed an exam, it would result in a license to drink.

A good thought, to be sure, but then he dashes that brief moment of (pardon the pun) sober thinking with his next statement. Speaking from his history professor background, McCardell ends with this thought: “We have lived through Prohibition; we know that Prohibition doesn’t work. Legal aged 21 seeks to impose prohibition on young adults and that, in my view, is the only way to look at this question.”

The problem here is that that is not the only way to look at this question. There are so many other ways to look at it, which Mr. McCardell, being an intelligent college professor, must be aware. Not the least of which is the fact that the Amethyst Initiative seems to be — and always has since its inception — a convenient solution for colleges and universities to an inconvenient problem. Add to this the fact that lowering the drinking age will likely increase the amount of deaths due to alcohol, plus the “trickle down” effect of younger kids (such as 14-16 year olds) experimenting with alcohol if the drinking age is lowered to 18, and I think that any intelligent person — college professor or not — can see the riskiness of doing what the Amethyst Initiative is trying to accomplish.

If you’d like to view the 60 Minutes interview for yourself, check it out here.

Shawn McMaster is a project coordinator for Straight Up Ventura County.