From the Goucher Quarterly, Fall 2008

Last summer, after a good deal of reflection and rumination, I signed a statement circulating among college and university presidents around the country. Named the Amethyst Initiative, and drafted by John McCardell, the highly regarded former president of Middlebury College, it took the simple position that the 21-year-old drinking age, in effect nationally since 1984, is not working and that it is time for a national dialogue on the issue. I was one of about 100 leaders in higher education who initially put their names to the document; at least 30 more have joined us since, and three have been intimidated into taking their names off.

The Amethyst Initiative (the word "amethyst" is derived from the Greek for "not intoxicated") reflects a straightforward truth: that very few young people in America today obey the law and abstain from drinking alcohol until their 21st birthday. On the contrary, many, if not most, drink during high school —beginning at, say, age 15 or 16—and there is growing evidence that the onset of drinking has now actually moved down into the middle school years. This not only does potential physical and emotional harm to the young drinkers, but also undermines democratic ideals. What phenomenon is more likely to encourage cynicism than to pass laws that are not, and cannot reasonably be, enforced?

It did not have to be college presidents who called attention to this dramatic issue. The task could just as easily have fallen to military officers, high school principals and coaches, police officers, or a multitude of public- and private-sector employers and managers.

Retired Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, the former head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a new member of the Goucher Board of Trustees, for example, notes that underage drinking is rampant among young recruits in the armed forces. "We ask them to kill, if necessary, to defend their country, but are we really going to say they can’t drink a beer? That’s ridiculous," says Ballard, whose experience includes Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

But it was college presidents who spoke out this time, because of a number of issues that are painfully obvious to us:

  • Drinking has steadily become a more severe problem on college campuses, in part because students overestimate our ability to enforce the law restricting alcohol use to those over 21. The furtiveness and urgency with which they drink, often at the start of an evening and in order to avoid detection, have exposed them to greater risk than ever. Many go off-campus to drink, putting themselves in real danger.
  • An unrealistic and unenforceable drinking age has led to a whole range of other illegal activity, including the entrepreneurial fake-ID business that has sprung up on almost every campus.
  • The "scientific research" on the issue is all over the lot. Some studies show a reduction in highway fatalities after 1984, but others indicate just the opposite in recent years.
  • The change in 1984 was not preceded by thoughtful conversation, but was the result of legislative blackmail. A congressional appropriations bill passed at the time required a 10-percent cut in federal highway funds to any state that did not comply immediately.

The reaction to the Amethyst Initiative has been profoundly disappointing for anyone who believes it should still be possible to have rational discourse in the United States around public issues of importance. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)—an organization that, begun in a spirit of profound grief, has turned into a powerful lobby— responded by launching a torrent of identical e-mail messages attacking the signers. At last count, I had received about 700 of them. No dialogue accomplished there.

MADD and others, including a few newspaper editorial pages, criticized us for advocating a blanket return to the 18-year-old drinking age. We had, of course, done nothing of the kind. As I have said on C-SPAN and in other interviews, I believe that a far more subtle conversation and consideration of options is required; I have no preconceived notion of what the result should be.

"Just enforce the law," say some critics. Would that it were so simple. Even a tripling or quadrupling of our campus Public Safety staff could not force an end to certain habits and abuses that students bring with them to college. (It is useful to remember that it proved impossible for federal officials to suppress the consumption of alcohol by American adults during this country’s 13-year experiment with Prohibition.)

I do have a few ideas about how we might, over the long term, make a dent in the horrific epidemic of teenage drinking in the United States. With proper and realistic leadership at the national level, for example, we could stop glorifying alcohol consumption in the public mind—in comedy routines, cartoons, music videos, television shows, and other persistent expressions of popular culture. We could also try to enlist parents not only to discourage their underage children from drinking to excess, but also to help introduce them, at an appropriate time and at home, to the responsible and moderate practice of social drinking—rather than treating alcohol as the forbidden fruit.

I suffer from no unrealistic sentimentality about practices in other countries, where there is plenty of binge-drinking and resultant public-nuisance behavior, but I do know that many of them have much stricter drunk-driving laws than ours. Has anyone besides me noticed the frequency with which American public officials—the same people who seek to regulate others’ behavior—are arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol? Perhaps that would change if the first offense resulted in a mandatory one-year suspension of a driver’s license; the second, in a five-year suspension; and the third, in a permanent loss of the right to drive a motor vehicle.

If the safety of students—and all people under 21—is truly our most urgent concern, then we will have to take an honest and straightforward look at a law that no longer commands respect. We will have to deal with the real world, rather than the one that lawmakers thought they were creating in 1984.