Photo by Isaac Miller.
Photo by Isaac Miller.

In 1984, the federal government established a national minimum legal drinking age of 21 years old. Today, despite legal prohibitions, more than half of 18- to 20-year-olds report that they drank alcohol in the last month, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

On March 19, political satirist Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” touched upon an emerging debate over the minimum legal drinking age. His guest was John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and the founder of Choose Responsibility, an organization fighting to spark the debate on the minimum drinking age. 

“I plan to support him,” Colbert said of McCardell, “once my youngest turns 21.” 

While Colbert may or may not have been joking, the invitation extended to McCardell shows the rising significance of this often-ignored issue. 

Encouraged by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1984, when states were still allowed to enforce different minimum drinking ages, the Reagan administration ordered that all states raise their drinking age to at least 21 or lose 10 percent of their federal highway funds.

MADD calls this “one of the boldest steps ever taken to stop drunk driving and to change the culture around underage drinking,” and the organization pushes for continued and increased enforcement of the law. 

On the other side of the table, Choose Responsibility views the legislation as a failure, saying it breeds contempt for the law and pushes all types of drinking practices behind closed doors. 


Talk of the Town

According to a July 2007 Gallup poll, 77 percent of Americans stated that they would oppose a federal law proposing to lower the drinking age in all states to 18. 

College students may find this number striking, as it counters what they might consider the average college mindset. 

Craig Reinarman, a UCSC sociology professor much of whose work has focused on drugs in society and prohibition, stated that the pros and cons on both sides of the spectrum have resulted in a difficult debate.

“If you ask the police, for example, you will get very negative responses toward changing the drinking age,” Reinarman said. “What they see is the worst of what alcohol has to offer.”

Fourth-year UCSC politics major Nate Baird is among the many college students who decided not to wait until 21 to consume alcohol.

“I got an ID when I was 16, from a close friend who looked enough like me,” Baird said.

Although Baird understood that his actions were not law-abiding, he stated that a desire to get into bars and other alcohol-serving venues outweighed the illegality.

“I never felt like I was above the law,” Baird said. “I had a lot of older friends and family members who would go out and drink. It was my attempt to be able to socialize with the people I care about most.”

Now 24 years old, Baird believes that the fact that he was introduced to the drinking atmosphere earlier was beneficial to his overall relationship with alcohol. 

“Some people party really hard when they come to college, because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn how to drink at a younger age,” he said. “I had been drinking for a while already, so drinking like that had lost its appeal to me when I got to college.”

Katie Finn, a 22-year-old exchange student from England, where the minimum drinking age is 18, agrees with Baird.

“[The 21-and-over] law is such a bad idea — if nothing else, because when you start drinking you need to learn how to deal with alcohol,” Finn said. “[In England] you’re brought into it gradually with your family. You get to know your limitations and how your body reacts.”

While Finn said that the climate surrounding the drinking age isn’t much better in England than in the United States, she was nonetheless surprised by the restrictive environment created by the university’s alcohol policies. 

“Alcohol is so demonized here,” Finn said. “I feel like I’m 16 again. Getting that freedom so late in your life restricts you feeling like an adult.”

Dierdrie Biddiscombe, manager of local dig The Poet and the Patriot, stood behind an empty bar and voiced her exasperation over the drinking age discussion.

“The kids come here for their 21st and they’re crazy,” she said. “Most of the time I don’t even give them a drink because they’re so intoxicated.

“Honestly, it should be 18. We’re so paranoid about drinking,” Biddiscombe continued. “Just because they turn 21 doesn’t mean they’re magically going to be responsible drinkers.”

The Poet and the Patriot doorman Bob Hillman chuckled as he listened on, standing in the doorway. “I think 21 is a good idea,” he said. “It gives young adults three more years to mature.”

Mike Tosney, the manager from Rosie McCann’s restaurant and bar in Santa Cruz, also cited his experiences as informing his opinion in the debate.

“It’s a controversial subject,” Tosney said. “After 12 years of serving alcohol to young people, 21 seems appropriate, in the United States at least. We don’t take the responsibility as seriously as Europeans. We like to do everything in excess.”

Patrick Sizemore, who works as a bouncer at the Avenue Bar, agrees that the drinking age should not be lowered to 18. 

“I think it’s fucking perfect,” Sizemore said of the current drinking age. “It’s right where it should be. When you’re 18, you’re fresh out of high school and you shouldn’t be drinking anyways.”


The Amethyst Initiative

There are more than 4,100 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Amethyst Initiative includes signatures from chancellors and presidents of only 135 institutions — and none of the signatures are from University of California or California State University campuses. 

The Amethyst Initiative represents another aspect of McCardell’s fight against the ineffectiveness of the minimum legal drinking age. 

The Amethyst Initiative, whose namesake is a gemstone that was believed to be an antidote to the negative effects of intoxication in ancient Greece, states on its Web site that its goal is to “call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite the new ideas on how best to prepare young people to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.” The initiative’s signatories support fostering informed debate about the issue.

In a press conference Monday with City on a Hill Press, UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal stated that although in the past he has been opposed to signing the statement, he is not “inconvincible.”

Blumenthal expressed concern about the eventual rise in drunk driving if the minimum drinking age is lowered, although he agreed that it would help reduce alcohol abuses such as binge drinking. 

“What would address my concern,” Blumenthal said, “is if you could show me that the number of expected deaths is going to go down.”


The Heart of the Matter

The high incidence of drunk-driving accidents was one of the main forces behind raising the minimum drinking age in the 1980s. 

According to the MADD website, the increased drinking age has saved 25,000 lives since it was enacted in 1984.  

“It’s a public safety issue, and the right for anyone to make a choice is predicated on the right of others to stay alive,” said Matthias Mendezona, a spokesperson for MADD who joined the organization in 2000 because he wanted to save lives. 

McCardell commends MADD for its continuous efforts in combating drunk driving, “but if the best way to reduce highway fatalities is to set a drinking age,” McCardell said, “then we’ve set it too low.” 

Sociology professor Reinarman, who is currently teaching a class on drugs and society, voiced his opinion on the issue of drunk driving. 

“The greatest risk associated with alcohol is drinking and driving,” Reinarman said. “And there has indeed been a decrease in the incidence of drunk driving since the minimum legal drinking age was installed. But it’s not all thanks to the drinking age. Cars are safer, huge campaigns against drunk driving were funded, law enforcement is stricter … Think seat belts, airbags and designated drivers.”

While he stood out in front of the Avenue Bar, sunglasses on in the misty weather, bouncer Sizemore explained that even though he supports the current minimum drinking age, he does not see its value when it comes to reducing drunk driving. 

“People are going to drive when they drink anyway, whether they’ve been drinking in a bar or not,” Sizemore said. “It’s not a question of age.”

MADD’s strongest argument against lowering the drinking age is based on the lessons of history. States that have lowered the drinking age to 18 or 19 since the current law was passed in 1984, MADD said, saw an average increase of 8 to 10 percent in crashes. 

Choose Responsibility believes that asking for a different age limit is not enough, however. 

“Simply lowering the drinking age won’t do much,” McCardell said. “It needs to be done in parallel with drinking education. Think of drivers’ education. We ought to approach alcohol the same way as driving. Instruct basic alcohol-drinking courses, involve parents and teachers, and teach responsibility. You can bury your head in the sand and pretend that abstinence-only education works, but it is our responsibility to help young people make informed and responsible decisions.”


A Hesitant Toast to the Future 

While many people are in disagreement with the current drinking age legislation, few are optimistic that they will see any change in the near future. 

For both McCardell and Reinarman, the law seems like a bribe, suppressing the opposing viewpoint. 

“The change can only happen at the state level,” McCardell said. “It’s not a ‘national’ drinking age per se, but it has the effect of stifling the debate. No state is going to pass over 10 percent of highway funding.”

McCardell said that as a consequence of the lack of debate, many government officials “believe that the population is satisfied with the law and that the question is settled.”

Debate or not, Stephen Colbert plays “the useful fool,” Reinarman said, by bringing the debate to the public. And although there seems to be a con for every pro, it is an omnipresent discussion on a college campus and deserves a space for debate. 

“The people who are pushing [this change] are wise in the long run,” Reinarman said. “We need to find a way to properly educate people today. People are going to do what they’re going to do — and that’s not always a good thing. In the long run we ought to try to shape a culture in which young people are taught about the power of these substances, taught to respect them, and taught how to use them.”