University Leaders Suggest Another Look At Drinking Age

BERLIN – Nearly 25 years after the legal drinking age in Maryland and every other state was raised to 21, campus leaders across the country have launched a campaign to lower the minimum legal drinking age back to 18 as part of an effort to curb binge drinking by teenagers, but the concept does not appear to have much momentum.

Over 100 university and college presidents across the country, including the University System of Maryland chancellor and many others in the state, have advocated revisiting the debate about lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. Called the Amethyst Initiative, the movement began in July when scores of campus leaders signed on to lend their support for the concept.

According to the Amethyst Initiative, the organization was formed and founded to “stimulate informed and dispassionate public discussion about the presence of alcohol in American culture and to consider policies that will effectively empower young adults age 18 to 20 to make mature decisions about the place of alcohol in their own lives.”

According to Amethyst Initiative founder and director John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont, the time has come to reconsider lowering the drinking age in the U.S. back to 18.

“Alcohol is a reality in the lives of young Americans,” he said “It cannot be denied, ignored, or legislated away.”

Conceptually, most of the 123 college presidents who have signed on in support of lowering the drinking age to 18 believe the measure would curb unsupervised binge drinking on their campuses. With most undergraduate college students under the age of 21, a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking often conducted off campus has developed,” according to an official release from the initiative.

Lowering the drinking age back to 18 would allow schools to host organized, supervised events on campus where drinking is allowed, eliminating the need for students to illegally obtain and consume alcohol in unsupervised situations. While the initiative is directed largely at college campuses at this point, a lower drinking age would apply in all areas should it be passed, which could have an impact on several areas where young people are prone to gather and party including Ocean City.

When the drinking age was changed from 18 to 21 nearly 25 years ago, many of its detractors argued it was better to have young people consuming alcohol in licensed establishments with responsible supervision than binge drinking in apartments, on the beach, in alleys and parks and anywhere else they could find.

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which mandated any state with a drinking age lower than 21 would lose 10 percent of their federal highway money. All states, including Maryland, raised their drinking age to 21 in response and it has remained that way for nearly 25 years.

Statistically, the change appears to have achieved the desired results. According to Ragina Averella, AAA-Mid-Atlantic manager of government and public affairs, statistics show an estimated 25,000 lives have been saved since the law was changed in 1984. Changing back to a minimum drinking age of 18 would reverse that trend.

“It defies logic that anyone would want to go backwards when obvious progress has been made, especially at a time when so much emphasis is being placed on teen driver safety,” she said. “Do we really want high school kids to have the opportunity to legally purchase beer?”

Lowering the drinking age to 18 would require a change in state law, but there doesn’t appear to be any momentum to get a bill introduced in Maryland. House Drug and Alcohol Committee  Chairman Delegate William Bronrott (D-Montgomery) this week urged Maryland colleges and universities not to support the initiative.

“Far more teens die in alcohol-related incidents than in those caused by all the other illicit drugs combined,” he said. “Lowering the drinking age to 18 will only make it worse.”

Anti-drinking and driving advocates wasted no time weighing in on the issue, which appears to cut at the heart of their very existence. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) national president Laura Dean-Mooney said this week binge drinking on campuses continues to be a problem, but lowering the drinking age is not the way to address it.

“Underage and binge drinking is a tough problem and we welcome an honest discussion about how to address this challenge, but that discussion must honor the science behind the 21 law which unequivocally shows that the 21 law has reduced drunk driving and underage and binge drinking,” she said.

Dean-Mooney said she knows first-hand about the dangers and called out the academic community for their shortsightedness.

“As the mother of a daughter who is close to entering college, it is deeply disappointing to me that many of our educational leaders would support an initiative without doing their homework on the underlying research and science,” said Dean-Mooney. “Parents should think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage and binge drinking policies.”