Booze policy should reflect reality

By Katie Dunne

On my 18th birthday, I returned home from jury duty, touting a cigarette and carrying my Army, Navy and Marine applications. My new tattoo was really sore, and my throat hurt from all the yelling we had done at the strip club earlier that day. I was on the prowl for a husband, and as I contemplated my “wanted” ad, I reached into the refrigerator for a cold one. Uncle Sam grabbed my wrist and scolded me. I could wave the American flag on an Iraqi battlefield, get married, and choose the leader of the free world, but beer was off-limits.

I spent the next three years avoiding the watchful eye of Uncle Sam. In Champaign, that meant sitting in the back of the bar and planning my escape if police were to enter. Friends bought the booze, and I drank what I could get. When I visited friends at other schools, where bars were 21-and-over, drinking was confined to apartments or frat houses, jungle juice was made in bathtubs, and no one knew exactly what they were drinking. In Chicago, it was a little more complicated. Fake IDs and second forms were involved, penalties and bouncers were larger, and I was as paranoid as ever.

Two weeks ago, after successfully avoiding Uncle Sam and his revenue-boosting, student-exploiting drinking tickets, I turned 21. I woke up that morning expecting to feel different. I should be more mature, have improved judgment and a better understanding of the consequences of alcohol consumption. Nope. It was still the same old undergrad looking forward to a night of excessive drinking to celebrate the fact that I could do it legally.

Is it just me, or does the culture of drinking in the United States seem a little backward? Our federally mandated drinking age of 21 is among the highest in the world, yet binge drinking is as common on college campuses as studying (maybe more common, depending on who you talk to). Many of us are living on our own, paying our way through college and developing into fine young adults, all the while strategizing about how to break the law. Drinking has become a part of college life across the country, but only a quarter of the undergraduate population can engage legally.

A drinking age of 21 denies adults the right to make decisions for themselves. It prevents colleges and families from educating students about alcohol and how it can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle. It encourages binging by forcing students into closed-door, unregulated drinking environments, which increase the likelihood of alcohol-related injury as well as sexual abuse.

Champaign Police Sgt. Scott Friedman put it well when he was quoted in the 2007-2008 Illio Yearbook, supporting the 19-year-old bar entry age. “I’d rather have my underage child at a bar than at a party. Bars have rules, while private parties have bedrooms.”

It’s not just students who support a lower drinking age. In August of this year, 119 college presidents and chancellors from across the country (no, President White and Chancellor Herman were not included) signed a proposal that the drinking age be lowered from 21 to 18. The Amethyst Movement, as members have titled it, seeks to combat binge drinking and encourage a “dispassionate public debate” on the subject. John McCardell, founder of the Amethyst Movement, said that educators are looking to teach young people how to drink responsibly because students are accessing and abusing alcohol despite the laws.

Proponents of the 21-year-old drinking age, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are quick to point out that the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has steadily declined since the government mandated a 21 drinking age. They conveniently neglect to mention other factors contributing to this trend, including stiffer penalties for drunk driving, increased enforcement of drinking laws, better education about the effects of drinking and driving, higher safety standards for vehicles, and the creation of strict seat belt laws. MADD further claims that adolescent drinking can be linked to long-term brain impairment, but studies on the topic are inconclusive at best.

The fact of the matter is that as long as bars are open and kegs are full, drinking is going to occur on college campuses. The question is, will it occur in the dark, black-lit rooms of frat houses, or will it occur openly in public drinking establishments? I think the responsible choice is clear.

Katie is a senior in political science and Spanish, and she needs a beer.