Across the United States, dozens of higher education leaders have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative. It’s a fascinating approach. The signers aren’t committing to a stance, but rather asking American society to begin an informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old-drinking age. It’s a controversial topic and it hit the airwaves in controversial style. Merely trying to cover the story touched a nerve across the country and countless media channels dedicated air time to the debate, if only to dismiss the initiative. Still, a conversation began.
In 1984, the United States passed a bill that required States to institute a 21 minimum drinking age in order to receive full federal highway funds. Many States had age limits before this, but this bill effectively federalized a drinking age and restricted alcohol purchasing to those 21+. The drinking age has a long and sordid history, wrapped up with Prohibition, moral reform, and age consciousness.
Anyone who tries to tell you that something magical happens for everyone at the age of 21 that makes youth brains capable of moderate consumption at that age is full of shit. The drinking age is not about psychology, no matter how many reports appear to “prove” otherwise. The drinking age is first and foremost about social control. We tried to prohibit everyone from drinking and when that failed, we went about trying to oppress the population that could be controlled. Like all other acts of Prohibition in this country, the minimum drinking age stems from a set of moral values projected onto a population as a means of control.
While the age limit is about social control, there is no doubt that alcohol is a dangerous drug. The chemical effect can damage the body in all sorts of ways and alcoholism is a very real addiction with costly repercussions. Binge drinking can be deadly and, even when it’s not, it can cause severe long-term damage. Alcohol doesn’t just affect the imbiber – alcohol affects everyone around the drinker. Drunk driving is a leading cause of death, alcohol destroys families, and a large percentage of domestic violence incidents involve alcohol. Alcohol abuse is linked to depression, poverty, violence, health problems, and all sorts of societal “ills.” Alcohol is one of the most dangerous and most abused substances out there. That said, people like it.
Let’s assume that the age-limit prohibitionists meant well since most moral reformers do (especially when the law runs counter to economic profitability). Even laws passed with the best of intentions can result in dire side effects. The Minimum Drinking Age is one of those laws. Like other abstinence approaches, this law set in motion a series of social and cultural factors that actually magnifies abusive acts. I want to briefly map out some factors at play and then discuss how the combination of them is outright deadly.
1) Alcohol is a marker of status. Youth desire adult vices because they desire the status and freedom that they symbolize. The more that adults tell youth that they are not old enough or mature enough to imbibe (… have sex, drive, stay out past midnight, etc.), the more imbibing becomes a desirable act. So long as alcohol is seen as a status symbol of maturity, it is consumed in excess by those seeking any means of being validated as mature. The harder it is to get, the more status it confers.
2) Moderation of enjoyable and high status activities must be learned. Humans naturally moderate (a.k.a. avoid) unpleasant experiences but they also naturally seek out pleasant ones. For many, alcohol consumption is enjoyable. To complicate matters, risk taking and the status that it affords is desirable. Illegal alcohol consumption combines these two elements. It is naturally pleasurable and excessive use of hard-to-obtain substances affords status in many circles. Moderation runs counter to this. Moderation is typically learned through personal exposure to the unpleasantries of alcohol or the shift in its status amongst a person’s social circle.
3) Age segregation makes learning to moderate harder. Age segregation means that status is conferred locally. Each new cohort goes through the ropes of alcohol consumption with few guides who have learned the costs and side effects. More problematically, age segregation means that status is local. Youth validate each other’s consumption as a marker of adulthood and there aren’t adults who have gone through the hells of abuse to curb the status structures. Thus, youth are socialized into a culture where massive consumption is highly regarded.
4) Abstinence programs make education and guidance impossible. We know that youth start drinking in high school, but there’s a general “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset at play. Schools that provide quality information are viewed as “encouraging” bad behaviors. Instead, schools are required to tell students of the horrors of alcohol while youth are simultaneously witnessing adult consumption. The hypocrisy of these messages is well recognized and youth end up dismissing all of the abstinence material as inaccurate.
University settings are by-far the worst configuration possible for this dynamic. Youth leave home, attaining one marker of adulthood, only to find an age-segregated social world with pressures to live up to the images of “cool” adulthood set in motion by mass media. They are no longer accountable to their parents and they desperately want to be validated by their peers. Universities are discouraged from educating underage students about alcohol and so there’s tremendous amounts of winking taking place in lieu of proper dialogue. Abuse runs rampant and is further magnified by the status that it affords from being risky in an age segregated community. Underage drinkers drink in private where their intake is not monitored rather than drinking in age-mixed public spaces where social pressures discourage genuine abuse. Youth aren’t socialized into drinking like adults, but rather drinking like media’s image of adults. Youth are afraid to seek help when they’ve gone too far because what they’re doing is illegal. Talk about a recipe for disaster.
Yes, youth make dumb decisions. But so do adults. Alcohol abuse is not just a problem for youth; millions of adults have problems with alcohol. Many adults with problems developed their habits as youth where their consumption was underground. They never had someone guiding them and no one ever realized that they had gone too far… until much later. The brain is like a power law – it grows most rapidly in the womb and slows as we get older. There is no magic age where it stops learning, but learning does get harder. Youth habits die hard, but lessons learned in youth also stick stronger. Holding off the possibility for abuse is certainly desirable, but if it means the difference between slowly ramping up and going from 0 to 60 in under a second, guess which is more likely to result in an accident?
I’m glad to see a debate raging on this topic. I think that it’s absolutely critical. My research with youth has led me to believe that the 21-minimum is deadly. I think that it encourages greater abuse than other scenarios. If I were given a magic wand to change the laws regarding alcohol, here’s what I would do:
1) Children may drink alcohol in private residences at any age when their parent or guardian is present.
2) Youth may apply for an alcohol permit starting at the age of 16. A mandatory education course and test (perhaps online) is required for getting this ID. With this ID, youth 16-17 can purchase alcohol in public when accompanied by an adult 21+ and those 18-20 can purchase alcohol in public by themselves.
3) No one under-21 can drive with even one iota of alcohol in their system. Consequences include fine, community service, permanent loss of alcohol permit, and multiple year license suspension.
Will this make alcohol abuse go away? No. That said, I believe that it would drastically reduce it. Changing the laws in this way will encourage parents to actually begin conversations about alcohol with their children rather than avoid the topic. I feel as though such an approach would mean that youth ease into alcohol and learn its limits while in an environment with older adults. By the time that youth hit college, alcohol would not hold the same level of allure. It would not be a marker of freedom in the same way. It would allow educational approaches to come into play. And it would allow what is underground to come above ground and reach a healthier state.
I know that many folks out there support reducing the age limit because, well, “they do it anyhow.” There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of underage drinking going on, but this isn’t just about legitimizing what is. We need to build safety structures in place, structures that allow youth to come of age in a healthy way. That’s not what exists right now. Thus, when youth head off to college, they drink their freedom to excess and the damage is palpable. If we’re going to curb that, we need to be more honest with ourselves about where alcohol stands in the cultural consciousness. We need to realize that you don’t learn to drink from a tap when all you know is a fire hydrant. And we need to recognize that imparting knowledge is more effective through socialization than pamphlets.
The Ancient Greeks believed that the amethyst quartz would prevent intoxication. The goddesses stepped in to help Amethystos ward off the intoxicated Dionysus. It is now our time to step in and help create structures that help youth have a healthy relationship with an otherwise unhealthy substance.