Friday, August 22, 2008

Is lowering the drinking age to 18 the right thing to do?

The presidents of some college and universities around the country have gained media attention lately for their supposed proposal to lower the national drinking age from 21 to 18. However, this is not what they explicitly want. Their initiative, called the Amethyst Initiative, merely calls for a reasoned debate about the matter.

The impetus for this, besides potentially making it easier on them to manage a mix of legal and illegal alcohol use on their campuses by lowering the legal age to 18, is the fact that the Transportation Department bill that created the age limit expires in 2009. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984. It created a penalty of a 10% loss of a state's federal highway funding on any state that sets its drinking age lower than 21. That created enough incentive for states to set their drinking ages at 21. With that bill soon set to expire, the time is right to revisit whether it makes sense.

Of course, one of the first arguments that people opposed to the 21 age is that if you are mature enough to vote and fight in a war for your country then you are mature enough to consume alcohol.

People who are in favor of the 21 age point out that different things are legal at different ages. For example:
  • 12 - age at which a person can obtain a hunting license
  • 16 - age at which a person can get a license to drive
  • 18 - age at which a person can serve in the military, on a jury, vote and sign a legally binding contract
  • 25 - age at which a person can serve in the U.S. House of Representatives
  • 35 - age at which a person can serve as the U.S. President
These ages were presumably chosen because they reflect the age at which a person is developmentally mature enough to handle the responsibilities that go along with the privilege.

Recently in WA, a 12-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed a woman hiking with her family. He mistook her as a bear and is being tried as a juvenile for manslaughter. Was he mature enough to obtain that license? He had one, so someone thought so.

I think if people are considered mature enough to use a tool that can be used as a deadly weapon, as both guns and cars can be, they are effectively considered mature enough to be in control of who lives and who dies, surely a grave decision. When a person votes for president they affect who gets to decide what to do with out country's most deadly weapon — nukes. Is anyone mature enough to make that decision? I don't have the answer to that, but I think it's absurd that people are considered mature enough to decide that at age 18 but not mature enough to drink a beer.

As a psychologist I know maturity and good judgment do not suddenly become fully developed once a certain age is reached. It's highly variable. Some are ready to make decisions and handle their consequences earlier than others.

That's why I personally am in favor of lowering the drinking age to 18, the age at which people are adult in the eyes of the law. It's arbitrary but at least in line with what is commonly considered 'adult.'

Perhaps the answer is to require a license to consume alcohol prior to a certain age. In order to obtain the license, the individual must take courses in the effects of alcohol and pass a test that measures whether they understand the consequences of drinking too much, how much impulse control they have, and whether they know how much is too much. I'd support that as a compromise, but really I see no good reason to not lower the drinking age to the age of majority.

You can learn more about the college president's initiative here: The Amethyst Initiative
And you can learn more about the research behind what effect increasing the age limit to 21 here.


T.Allen-Mercado said...

Your reasoning is a crystal clear translation of my fora rambling. I agree wholeheartedly. As a parent I think *my* child will not be mature/responsible enough at 18. I know at 16 he is not ready to drive a car, but the law is the law. It's a tough call.

moonmystic said...

They should not lower it. It will just make it easier for the even younger kids to get it then.

Field Notes said...

I don't think that just because the age is lowered more kids will drink. I think those under 18 who want to drink are going to be able to find someone old enough to buy it legally whether they get it from another 18 yr old or a 21 yr old or their parents (whether consensually or not).

Enforcing a law is where the rubber hits the road. If a law is set enforcing it will have an effect.

And, the argument that raising the drinking age coincided with fewer drunk driving accidents and therefore raising the age *caused* drunk driving to decrease is attributing cause to a correlation.

You know what? There's evidence those DUI accident rates were decreasing before the age was raised. You know one potential reason why? Public service announcements and ads about the dangers of drinking and driving were adopted. Now, I'm not saying they caused the accident rates to drop, just that there's another reason they may have. Could have been one, could have been the other - could have been both in conjunction. And, it could have been neither but something else entirely.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Underage drinking is always going to be a problem. Wouldn't it be nice if universities could put the money that is currently going towards busting underage drinkers into programs that actually educate students about responsible drinking??

Anonymous said...

These are good arguments. I was shocked about the story of the 12 year old.

I've always felt age was not a good sole determinant for such things as driving, voting, and drinking. Age is the easiest (and cheapest) way to determine "maturity". It is also the least subjective. There are many who are older than the minimum required age who SHOULD NOT be driving, voting, or drinking. I think your idea about a alcohol consumption license is a good one - whether you are of minimum age or not. You have to get a license to drive and a license to hunt, why not a license to drink (or perhaps smoke weed as well to bring up another issue). But, we like low taxes and training/testing/licenses cost taxpayer money. Maybe get those alcohol companies & distributers to pay part of the bill since they say they are concerned for your safety and want us to wait until we are old enough to drink . . . One can dream, right?

The only thing I might add is if the age is lowered to 18, I think there might be more 16 and 17 year olds who will try to get alcohol (like some 19 and 20 year olds do now). There needs to be incentives for the retailers who distribute alcohol. Out here, there is one wine store I frequent that scans in the driver's license for each and every customer. I think all alcohol retailers should have a mechanism like that. It would IMMEDIATELY flag invalid driver's (or potential alcohol consumption) licenses. Then REALLY stiffen the penalties for distributing to someone is isn't licensed to consume alcohol or is underage.

Just one idiot's opinion.

SquirrelGurl said...

I think that no matter what the legal drinking age is there will be underage drinkers... the lure of alcohol to teenagers is far too great, I knew kids in middle school who had access to alcohol and they were considered "cool".

I think this is an issue where you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

maryeb said...

I'm glad I found this post.
I've been thinking about this topic since I first heard about it on the news.
I admit I was biased against the idea without really knowing any of the facts or data behind it.
Thanks for the info.