As much as pretzels and beer make a good combination, the pretzel logic that is being expressed in support of lowering the national drinking age to 18 years old is outrageous. As a parent of two teen age daughters, one nearing college age, the issue of underage drinking and binge drinking that has become such a part of the college experience has been very prominent in my mind. Having recently joined the team of Straight Up in Ventura County, and been exposed to the eye-opening local statistics, I am dumbfounded by the so-called “solutions” — endorsed by college and university leaders, no less — that lowering the drinking age would supposedly bring about.
I have spent almost two decades working in the entertainment industry, and I am certainly no stranger to the prominence that drugs and alcohol continue to have in our society. They have wrecked the lives and promising careers of some talented and charismatic people whom I would have loved to have seen continue with the anticipation of what they might offer next. River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin are a few of the names that first spring to mind when contemplating this subject. Many Ventura County residents would add the name of Cody Murphy to that list.
Cody was a junior at Newbury Park High School, the school my oldest daughter attends, and was a promising athlete. He was one of those kids who seemed to be everybody’s friend. Popular on and off campus, he had the potential of getting everything he wanted out of life. All of that came to an end in early April of this year when he was killed on Pacific Coast Highway coming back from a concert. Passengers traveling with him were injured — some severely — and alcohol was involved. Video footage broadcast on local news stations showed officers pulling a bottle of Jägermeister out of the wreckage, and reports later stated that all of the passengers had been drinking.
Sad and senseless.
What seems even more senseless is the call to lower the drinking age that was made public this past summer. The Amethyst Initiative (named for the purple gemstone that in ancient Greece was widely believed to ward off drunkenness) originated in July of this year and has quickly gained momentum. It currently contains the signatures of 130 prominent chancellors and presidents of colleges and universities all across the country calling for a national discussion on lowering the national legal drinking age to 18 years old. Their stated belief, taken directly from their Web site, makes the case that now, 24 years after the drinking age was raised, “our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that 21 is not working,” and because of this “a culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ — often conducted off-campus — has developed.” With the National Minimum Drinking Age Act up for reauthorization next year, their aim is to ultimately lower the drinking age and to “bring parents back into the equation.”
I agree with the position that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) holds when discussing this issue: College presidents whose names appear on this initiative are just looking for a solution to an inconvenient problem. And even then, I’m not quite sure what kind of a solution this would offer when it comes to the problem of student binge drinking. Hazing rituals and parties on campuses that involve alcohol have escalated well beyond the definition of “crazy” and “out of control,” and anyone would be hard-pressed to find another word to adequately describe them.
Gordie Bailey, a student at the University of Colorado and the subject of an independent film documentary called Haze, died of alcohol poisoning in 2004, just three weeks after stepping onto the campus, in a hazing incident of the school’s Chi Psi fraternity. More recently, Gary DeVercelly, a new student at Rider University in New Jersey died after drinking nearly two-thirds of a bottle of vodka during a hazing event for the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. Interestingly, the names of neither of the presidents from the University of Colorado nor Rider University appear on the Amethyst Initiative.
On a recent episode of the Dr. Phil Show, Barrett Seaman, a former reporter for Time, the author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You and an Amethyst Initiative board member, appeared with Laura Dean-Mooney, the president of MADD. While they both should be commended for bringing this important issue to light in their own way, I found it interesting that Seaman never refuted or even challenged the statistics that were presented by Dean-Mooney. Statistics like the fact that after the drinking age was raised to 21, the number of deaths attributed to drunk driving of kids ranging in age from 16-20 had a significant drop of close to 1,000 — that’s hundreds of deaths prevented! And it has continued to drop each year with the exception of a single year.
In 1982, before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act went into effect — raising the legal drinking age to 21 — an estimated 5,224 alcohol-related traffic fatalities were reported in the U.S. In 1984 the law went into effect, and was adopted by all 50 states by 1988. In that year, alcohol-related traffic fatalities dropped to approximately 4,000 and have been on the decline ever since. As of 2006, the percentage of deaths had been reduced by 60 percent from the 1982 figures.
The argument that lowering the drinking age will promote safer drinking habits among 18- to 20-year-olds because it will “bring parents back into the equation” seems laughable and misguided. I don’t know about you, but wasn’t 18 the milestone you were striving for when you were young? And why was that? Because you were an “adult” and “could make your own decisions.” How effective will a parent’s admonition about alcohol be on a strong-willed 18-year-old? They’re already drinking at 18 right now. According to Dan Hicks, Program Administrator for the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department Prevention Services, 16 percent of all alcohol profits come from minors — those under the legal drinking age. And many psychologists agree that at age18, the human brain is still a bit immature when compared to that of a 21-year-old, and therefore less equipped to make decisions from a “life experience” standpoint.
I have no problem with “bringing parents back into the equation” if they haven’t already been a guiding force in their children’s lives. We all live very busy lives, and sometimes, unfortunately, our kids and their activities tend to fall into a state of parental neglect. The teen years are an especially important time to reconnect with your children if a gap in communication or a disconnect has occurred, and learning about your children’s current environment is an important part of that. What’s going on at school? Who are their friends? What are their friends’ parents like? Will your kids be attending a party where the parents think that underage drinking is a “rite of passage?” Will parents even be present at the party? Maybe provide the booze?
With the binge drinking problem no longer limited to college kids and now rapidly creeping into the high school environment, the discussion that needs to happen is not about lowering the legal drinking age — it’s about taking seriously the risks posed to Ventura County teenagers every weekend. Needless risks that start with alcohol and very often lead to sexual assaults and violent deaths. If you are a parent, talk to your children about the dangers of binge drinking. You can bring yourself back into the equation right now. You don’t need a misguided national initiative to make that happen.
Shawn McMaster is a professional magician, writer, and a project coordinator for Straight Up Ventura County. For more information about Straight Up: www.straightupvc.org