THE PROBLEM of underage drinking on college campuses has been brewing for many years to the continued vexation of higher education administrators. In 2008, John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College, began to circulate for signature a public statement among colleagues titled "The Amethyst Initiative," (1) which calls for elected officials to reexamine underage drinking laws. The project grew out of outreach efforts of a nonprofit organization he founded in 2,007 called Choose Responsibility. The nonprofit advocates lowering the drinking age to 18 and licensing alcohol use for young people in much the same manner as driving--following coursework and an exam. Choose Responsibility also favors the repeal of the laws that set 21 as the mandatory minimum age for drinking (known as the "21 laws") and encourages states at the least to adopt exceptions to the 21 laws that would allow minors to drink at home and in private clubs. It also favors social changes that shift the focus on alcohol use among youth to the home, family, and individual.
The Amethyst Initiative's statement has been signed by 135 college presidents and chancellors at schools from Duke to Bennington. The majority is private; most are in the Northeast. The statement takes no formal position, unlike Choose Responsibility. It does, however, drop heavy hints as to where the debate ought to come out. The statement says "21 is not working" and asks "How many times must we relearn the lessons of Prohibition?" It draws comparisons to other age-of-majority rights conferred on 18-year-olds, such as voting and serving in the military, and calls upon elected officials to consider "whether current public policies are in line with current realities."
It seems that the presidents of 135 colleges, including elite schools, large universities, and small state schools find themselves so exasperated with the amount of alcohol guzzled by undergraduates--or more to the point, the trouble the undergraduates get into while inebriated--that they now beseech lawmakers to "rethink 21," an elegant and rather roundabout way of saying: Let undergrads drink with the sanction of the law.
The primary argument made in the Initiative's statement in favor of repealing the 21 laws is that the 21 laws make alcohol taboo, thus driving underage drinking underground and causing more binge drinking to take place than otherwise would, due to the allure of forbidden fruit and the need for secrecy. Hence, by lowering the drinking age, youth consumption would come out in the open and binge drinking would be largely reduced or even eliminated. The second salutary effect of lowering the drinking age, the Initiative argues, would be educational: Colleges would be allowed to have open, frank discussions about responsible drinking. In other words, institutions of higher education could teach young people how to drink responsibly. The Initiative makes vague references to the "unintended consequences" of 21 "posing increasing risks to young people," and says that the original impetus for the 21 laws--reduction of highway fatalities by young drivers--has outlived its usefulness.
Since its launch, the Initiative has created a public dialog about the drinking age, resulting in media coverage and a hearing before the New Jersey state legislature in November 2008. Despite its gravity as a public health problem, even among children younger than 18, the topic of underage alcohol abuse has been underaddressed in the popular media and in public funding compared to illicit drug abuse. The Initiative is a welcome development insofar as it challenges us to examine whether 21 "is working." The answer: It is not, as currently enforced. So should 21 be scrapped or salvaged? First, a look at how we got here, and why the 21 laws are broken.
The 21 laws
AMERICANS GENERALLY HAVE not allowed young people to drink. Older teens were allowed to drink legally during part of the 1970s and early 1980s--a blip on the American-history radar screen. …