One Man's Case for a Lower Drinking Age
John McCardell is a man on a mission. The former president of Middlebury College and founder of the nonprofit group Choose Responsibility is traveling the country this spring to drum up support among college presidents and policy experts for a counterintuitive proposal: that given the growing problem of binge drinking on campus, it's time to drop the drinking age below 21. Decriminalizing drinking by people 18 and older, McCardell says, will bring their alcohol consumption out from hiding, where parents and adults can monitor itand model responsibility without conflict. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 could earn a license to buy and use alcohol by completing an alcohol education program.
What makes you think your proposal would work?
As things stand, alcohol is a reality in the lives of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. And prohibition doesn't work. Public policy should not be to try to change deeply seated human behavior. The goal should be to create the safest possible environment for that reality to take place. Legal Age 21 [the law requiring states to set the bar at age 21 or lose federal highway funding] does not do that.
If you infantilize people, you can't profess astonishment when you see infantile behavior. Alcohol education is mandatory now only after you've been convicted of driving under the influence. That makes no sense. Why not make it available earlier as a way of preparing young people to deal with alcohol responsibly? I think the analogy is drivers' ed. Drivers' ed works because there's a generally agreed-upon curriculum; a partnership between the family and the government, and because there's an incentive at the end in the form of a license.
What's to stop kids from getting the license and going wild?
If you are in violation of your state's alcohol laws prior to turning 18, you forfeit your eligibility for the license. This may do more to reduce the problem of underage drinking than anything else that we've tried. And if you violate the laws of your state after receiving the license, by giving alcohol to a minor or driving drunk, say, it is instantaneously revoked.
Choose Responsibility is trying to mobilize support among college students. What's in it for them if they're already managing to drink?
The generation that I come from was disposed to respond to unjust laws by occupying buildings, staging demonstrations, carrying placards. This current generation is not that way. I think they're engaging in a different form of civil disobedience, and that binge drinking might be a form of protest of an unjust law. If they have the slightest sense that there are people like me and Choose Responsibility willing to support them, I think they'll step up and express themselves.
What brought you to this set of beliefs?
Much of my interest in this issue has come out of my own parental experience. When my 20-year-old son comes home from college at Christmastime, if I serve him alcohol, I'm communicating a message I'm not sure I ought to. But if I tell him under no circumstances will we serve him wine with Christmas dinner, I know perfectly well that he's going to be able to find some other suppliereither where parents are more tolerant or where there is no adult presence. Given those impossible choices I would far rather have that experience take place at home under my supervision. I think most parents would agree with me.
Also, I've been a member of the Middlebury faculty since 1976 and so I was on a college campus when the drinking age was 18. There was natural and adult intergenerational social interaction. The faculty and staff were able to model responsible drinking behavior.
Was there abusive drinking? Of course. There will always be abusive drinking. But were we using terms like "binge drinking" in the late '70s and early '80s? No. That is a phenomenon that has only arisen in the wake of Legal Age 21. I saw with my own eyes how behavior was being changed by this law.
How did you handle underage drinking when you were president?
With each violation, the penalties became more severe and ultimately led to suspension. That was an imperfect solution.
Yet haven't alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the 18 to 21 age group gone down with the higher drinking age?
I don't believe there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Fatalities have declined in every age group over the past 20 years. I think a combination of awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving, safer automobiles, mandatory seat belts, airbags, designated driversall of those things have contributed to a reduction in the drunken driving problem.
How do you react to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving case for age 21? They're a major player.
They are. I give them great credit for the fact that our society is much more aware of the problem of drinking and driving than we were. And I think the reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities is traceable to the influence of MADD. Their latest effort is to support mandatory ignition interlocks [which test drivers' alcohol level and can prevent a car from starting] for anyone convicted of a DUI. I would love to work with MADD to help make that happen in every state legislature.
Yet to assert that if you drink before turning 21 you will lose brain capacity is not a very constructive contribution to this debate. But if you go on the MADD website, that's what you'll find.
The American Medical Association also talks about alcohol affecting learning, long- and short-term memory, personality development, and behavior problemsall the way through age 25. How do you reconcile this with your goal?
If public policy were to be based solely on medical research having to do with the adolescent brain, we should raise the age to 25. But policy needs to be based on cultural realities as well. If you're not going to set it at 25, there's nothing magical about 21.
There is a whole slice of the American population today that was allowed to drink at age 18, 19, and 20. Is there any evidence of generational brain impairment among that group? If so, let's see the evidence.