Engaging young people in advocacy, education & prevention
Creating social change around alcohol, drugs, and more

Choose Responsibility?

November 17, 2009 10:10 am Published by Comments Off on Choose Responsibility?

John McCardell just won’t go away. In fact, he’s gaining more visibility. (see “An Amethyst in my Side” blog post)

The former Middlebury College president, and creator of the Amethyst Initiative, has founded a non-profit organization with the ironic name of Choose Responsibility. The goal of this organization is to lower the drinking age to 18, stating that the 21 drinking age law is “an abysmal failure.”

Founded in 2007 with initial funding from the Robertson Foundation, Choose Responsibility has gone on to develop a presence both on the internet and nationwide, educating both parents and teens about the failure and hypocrisy that he sees in the legal drinking age being 21. On the website, in his appeal to parents in speaking of the legal drinking age, he states, “In many cases, this misguided social policy interferes with your ability to do the right thing for your children.”


McCardell also offers up statistics and facts associated with the raising of the drinking age in 1984 and the results that followed. Many of his supportive facts, in my opinion, just raise more questions about the rationale of lowering the legal age, and his scientific facts raise questions as well.

Take the following example. On a document that can be downloaded from the site, the question is raised about the development of the adolescent brain and the potential effects of alcohol on the brain at that age. The question is answered by Dr. H. S. Swartzwelder, who, according to the site, is a “frequently cited expert on adolescent brain development and substance abuse, MADD consultant, and Choose Responsibility board member.” Swartzwelder states facts like

It is true that the brain continues to develop into a person’s 20s, particularly the frontal lobes which are critical for many of the higher cognitive functions that are so important for success in the adult world, such as problem solving, mental flexibility, and planning. It is also clear that alcohol affects the adolescent brain differently than the adult brain, but the story is not simple and the data should be interpreted cautiously as this complex science continues to evolve. Although alcohol affects some brain functions more powerfully during adolescence, it affects other functions less powerfully during the same period.

If this Choose Responsibility board member is to be taken at his word, he’s agreeing that alcohol will affect an adolescent brain differently than an adult brain, but he’s not sure exactly how or how much.

He goes on to state

Since the effects of single doses of alcohol can have markedly different effects on adolescents than on adults, it makes sense to ask whether this means that the adolescent brain is more or less sensitive to the effects of repeated doses of alcohol over time. In my view, the jury remains out on this question.

Again…what? If you’ve agreed to the fact that the adolescent brain is affected by alcohol, even if it isn’t evident in all cases studied according to his data, I’m not a scientist, but wouldn’t the prudent thing be to not lower the drinking age until these studies are more conclusive? If “the jury is out,” let’s wait for their deliberation and decision before we let the inmate free.

The saddest feature of the Choose Responsibility website is the “Tell Us Your Story” page where visitors to the site are encouraged to share their stories involving the 21 year-old drinking age and underage drinking laws. The nine stories that have been posted are authored by a mixture of parents and teens, and most of them are an incredible smorgasbord of either poorly-stated manifestos written by under-aged college students, or short, finger-pointing blurbs written by adults who don’t want to take the blame for anything.

For example, here are a few snippets of a post written by  a 19 year-old college student:

Being a 19-year-old United States citizen living on my own at college, I am very befuddled at our government, its actions, and stupidity. The “young adults 18” are supposedly given a voice in our countries government, but that voice we are given is hidden behind the prejudice views and preconceived notions that our government has made. These views have hidden the voice of the people that laws actually have an affect on especially when it comes to the legal drinking age.

There are many adults between the ages of 18-20 that are not hearing, because they are not taken serious. Well government takes a look at this. In 2008 120 college presidents declared that they do not believe that the drinking age of 21 is decreasing the amount of under age drinking, but it is pushing drinking underground for adults under the age of 21, and they blame the government for this. The government is singlehanded being the most ignorant organization, in regards to the drinking age. Is the government not seeing what every else into this country is?

I promise you, I did not change any of the text in the above two excerpts. This is exactly how they appear on the site – misspellings, poor sentence structure and all. There is a lot more of this type of writing in Justin’s post that I didn’t even bother to include here.

Another post, and a sad commentary on today’s society and its constant need to find someone else to blame, comes from a parent who writes:

Our son, Shane, went to a college party after a football game with a rival school, at a house off the University of Dubuque campus. There was underaged drinking going on. The police came on a noise complaint. The kids all got very scared and several went out windows. Our son stepped out onto the second story roof, slipped and fell to his death (after lingering for a week in ICU) We truly believe if the poluce had not come and scared the students our son would be alive today.

Unbelievable. Choose Responsibility – the website of an organization advocating a bad idea, supported by poorly formed opinions and facts.

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