Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Amythest Initiative

Nearly 100 college presidents have signed a document, the Amethyst Initiative, calling for a national debate on the drinking age. Predictably, it has stirred up a lot of MADD charges that the presidents are trying to make their own lives easier and that lowering the drinking age will only increase binge drinking on campus. MADD might have a point (the latter) if the drinking age were changed without any discussion or accompanying changes in how we approach alcohol; if kids continue to learn that drinking is a forbidden adult activity, to be done quickly before you get caught, binge drinking might very well increase.

But the presidents didn't call directly for lowering the drinking age, they called for discussion. And that has a lot of potential for changing college drinking habits. Unfortunately, MADD and DARE have so poisoned the public discussion that it is difficult for reasonable parents to even discuss teaching their kids how to drink. Any parent who would even consider teaching their minor child how to drink responsibly must be irresponsible at best. We teach them about driving and safe sex; why is it that we can't teach them how to drink properly? An open discussion about the drinking age is a good thing, especially if it gives us a chance to deal with alcohol responsibly - but it is threatening to groups like MADD that have made their name (and money) by repressing it.

Well-meaning groups like MADD and DARE teach young kids that alcohol is evil and no one should ever drink (which went over like a lead balloon at our dinner table). Unfortunately, kids get older and figure out that adults do drink, hypocritically, and therefore the adults must be keeping something special, something grown-up, from kids. Forbidden fruit is all the sweeter - then we wonder why they drink so eagerly.

If kids learn that alcohol is a normal, reasonable part of life, to be enjoyed with food or friends, for the taste rather than the drunkenness, and are allowed to do it, then why would they binge drink? Of course, this requires adults to teach their children these things, which is challenging in the current MADD/DARE environment. Parents who understand kids and their penchant for forbidden fruit, adults who have a rational approach to alcohol consumption, can teach their children that, used in moderation, alcohol is an enjoyable part of a full life. But at the moment, that education had better occur quietly or you will be a bad parent.

In part, kids binge drink because, if they want to drink, there aren't many options, and none legal. One reasonable compromise would be a "learner's license" for drinking. Kids 18 (or 19, to keep alcohol out of high schools) to 20 would be allowed to drink wine and beer; at 21, they could drink anything. It is harder to get drunk (especially dangerously drunk) on wine and beer, so it would be safer than simply lowering the drinking age for all alcohol. In addition, wine and beer are generally drunk with food, so kids could start to learn, even if their parents didn't teach them, how alcohol can be used properly. This would give young adults a chance to drink, in a safe manner, and would probably decrease binge drinking (usually of hard liquor) quite a bit. It might even lead to a more rational approach to alcohol than the current "all or nothing" attitudes.

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