YES! This is not as Quixotic as it seems: five
Vermont legislators co-sponsor a bill to lower the state's drinking
age to 18, fully cognizant that this will cost them $10 million in
federal highway funds! “It’s a matter of logic and
reasonableness,” says one of them. "It’s hypocritical.”
I'm an Adult Now
Reckon I'll get some mail on this one. Just do me a favor: read
the whole thing first.1
When I was 19, I discovered Conowingo. Back in the late 1970s,
around the time when I'd had my first beer (a Genny Cream pounder) and
decided I wanted a lot more of them, I was living in Lancaster County,
Pennsylvania, with my parents. The drinking age in Pennsylvania was 21.
But in Maryland, a coincidental 21 miles away as the crow flies, the drinking age
was 18. The booze was also quite a bit cheaper.
As you can imagine, Conowingo, Maryland, just four miles over
the border and the first town on the main road south from Lancaster, was
crowded with bars and liquor stores. They weren't anything to look
at, but they would sell beer to me and my friends after they
checked our IDs. We were legal! We would buy pitchers of Stroh
beer for $3.50 and scarf them all night long as we listened to a
honky-tonk band that pretty much sucked except for an old guy who was a
genius on the steel guitar.
And when the bar closed, we would get back into someone's parents'
car, and drive home. Drunk. Because you know...when we were
in Maryland we could drink as much as we wanted without having to look
over our shoulders. We'd pack it in, because who knew when we'd get to
have another blissful draft of cold beer in such freedom. And then we'd
take the winding back roads home -- sticking to the windiest back roads
to avoid the cops -- and somehow, somehow, we never met the
fate of some of our cohort: smashed against a tree, crushed under a
truck, slammed into each other, wrapped around a telephone pole. When I
think back on how little consideration we gave to those consequences, just to
get out where we could have a couple of beers...I shudder in the closely
avoided chill of the angel of death.
Which is why I ask you this month: why not lower
the drinking age to 18?
Sound crazy? Well, you know my answer
to that one. But it all ties together. Let's think about it.
I've actually been meaning to write about this for quite a while.
But I wanted to get my facts straight. I wanted to find breakdowns on how
much of the widely trumpeted numbers on "underage drinking"
actually represent drinking by 18 to 20 year olds (I suspect it's a
lot of it). I was looking for a split on underage drunk driving
arrests along that same line (found
that one, and I'm right, there are a lot more 18-21 year olds
than 16-17 year olds2). I wanted to get a lot of numbers like
that...but I can't find most of them. It's almost as if someone doesn't want us
to see that truth. Maybe this will flush them out, if someone who knows
where to find this stuff reads this, but I couldn't wait any
Let me explain. Argument #1: What's so Dangerous About A
Glass of Beer?. Why do we lock up alcohol until the age of
21? At the age of 18, an American is an adult. They can take a
full-time job, they can get married, they can have children, they
can rent an apartment, they can get a mortgage (okay, they can apply
for a mortgage), they can own and drive a car (at 16!), they can buy a handgun,
they can buy cigarettes, they can shoot pool in public,
they can sign a contract, they can get a passport, they can get a
hunting license and legally carry around high-powered rifles, they can
join the military and fight, kill, and die for our country overseas, they can
(they must) pay taxes, they can (and should) vote,
they can run for political office, except the Presidency. All
this they can do, without the permission of their parents, at the age of
18, but they cannot walk into a bar and buy one stinking, lousy glass
of light beer, they cannot get so much as a watered-down Jack and Coke
at a dancehall. Hell, they can't even go to the beer store and buy a
six-pack to take home to their dad. Does that seem right? Does it even
Argument #2: Forbidden Fruit. The argument runs like this: if
you deny something to a teenager or a young adult, you make it
that much more alluring. "YOU MAY NOT HAVE A BEER UNTIL YOU ARE 21!!" How
are you going to react to that? I'm going to want to find out what the
big fuss is all about. I think this one is valid, but it's iffy.
Different kids will react differently. A factor, but not a solid
Argument #3: It's a Different World. It's true. When I was
underage, it was the 1970s. Drunk driving was still a subject of
I remember hearing drunk driver jokes on the radio. Underage drinking
wasn't the subject of much hand-wringing. I went on a band
exchange trip to a school in Massachusetts during high school where the
host school parents were organizing a kegger for after the
concert, knowing that 15 and 16 year olds would be there. And if the kids down to
college drank, well, they drank, so did we, makes a man out of you,
blahblahblah. 25 years later, the whole social tenor has changed. The
effects of MADD, SADD, the push for the designated driver, the so-called
Center for Science in the Public
Interest3, the 0.10 and now 0.08 BAC driving
laws...things have changed, and the roads, the bars, the hearts and
minds of parents are all a lot safer. People take drunk driving a
lot more seriously (good!) and pay a lot more attention to
underage drinking. So...it's a safer world for 18 to 21 year olds
to drink in.
Argument #4: Graduated Entry. I already told you about
discovering the differences in legal drinking ages at the Maryland
border when I was growing up. When I was already legal, I went to grad
school in Washington, DC. I wound up renting dorm space at a women's
college...long story, buy me a beer sometime and I'll tell you all about it. The
interesting thing was that DC, at the time, had a two-level drinking
age: 21 for liquor, 18 for beer and wine. Because of that, the
women's college had a pub in the basement of one of the dormitories
(not mine, unfortunately) that served beer and wine. The girls could go
there, they could take dates there, and drink beer or wine, dance, watch
TV, and hang out. It was a very good thing, because the kids got
experience drinking in a social setting, they didn't have to
drive or even take public transit, there were no predatory types around.
18 for beer and wine sounds like a great idea to me; you have to
work at getting seriously drunk on beer or wine, and the bartender, a
good bartender, can keep an eye on you more easily.
Argument #5: Unsupported Arguments. Keg registration is the
latest unsupported argument that is sweeping the nation. Here's how the
argument goes. "Whenever anyone buys a keg,
make them give personal info backed up with valid ID, charge them
a hefty deposit, and limit the time they have to get the
keg back. Stick a tag on the keg and make it criminal to
remove or deface it (never mind that the paper tags will almost
certainly be defaced if the keg is in a tub of ice and water).
This way if the cops raid an underage drinking party, they'll
know who supplied the keg and be able to arrest them for giving
beer to minors." Well, you already know what
I think about that one. It doesn't work! Keg sales dwindle
to nothing because it's too much of a pain for anyone to buy a
keg, 30-pack and beer ball sales skyrocket, and nothing
changes except the amount of litter at underage field parties.
So why do these laws continue to get passed? Because they
sound good. Because rational-sounding arguments can be made for
them. Because so many legislators find it impossible to vote against an
idea that 1)doesn't cost them anything; 2)makes them look like they're
solving a problem; or 3)is supported by someone who says "If
it just saves one life, it will be worth it." Well, it does
cost you something -- police attention distracted from drunk driving
prevention, for one -- and it doesn't solve anything, and...how
do you know it saved one life?
That's really the crux of my whole argument. We don't know
that raising the drinking age to 21 saved any lives. There are so
many factors involved that it would be impossible to know: states
went to 21 at different times, other changes took place in the drinking
laws, different states enforce the laws differently... Any real
scientist would take one look at such a snake's nest and just
So how do we know that raising the age to 21 didn't cause more
deaths of young adults? I'm cold serious here. Remember my
drunken runs home from Conowingo. You may think that raising the drinking age to 21 everywhere
solves that problem -- they don't have anywhere to drive home from
-- but it doesn't. There are still those drinking havens for 18 to 21
year olds -- they may not be legal, or permanent, or openly
acknowledged, but they exist: the pasture over the hill, Joey's
parents are away, that unfinished house in the new development, the back
of Rebecca's car, whatever.
As long as young adults are kept outside the legal, social,
personal systems for controlling alcohol consumption -- the
bar, the restaurant, the liquor store -- they are going to binge
when they have the opportunity (Why savor and sip? Alcohol's a drug:
their government, teachers, and parents told them so) , and then someone's
going to drive home drunk. Hey, as long as it saves one life, it's
worth it, right?
Tell me this: whose life is being saved? Go back to argument
#1. If you tell these people that they're adults in every single way but
one, and for that one little glass of beer they've got to
wait three years...Do you really think they're not going to
drink? They will. I say it's better to admit they're adults,
and to put them fully into the system where they can be helped to
learn how civilized people drink. I believe that there'd be a lot
less binging...but I don't pretend to be able to prove it. I
can't, I don't have the research grants and shrieking anti-alcohol
weenies to back me up.
But I do think it's an idea that is worth being debated. Debated
honestly, openly, and fairly. And if anyone comes to that debate and
starts the hysteria about saving the children...I want to take
them by the back of the neck and drag them down to the tree on the
way home from Conowingo that has claimed the lives of about 8 adults...who
should have been legal, and should have been drinking
moderately in their hometowns, not driving drunk and scared over 30
miles of winding back roads. Who should have been alive today.
And then maybe we can get back to honest and open debate.
Start the debate. Let's start treating alcohol like adults -- and
treat our kids like adults, too.