Column: Drinking laws make no sense

Last week the National Institutes of Health published a survey of research on college drinking. “A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges” reported a few headline-grabbing statistics, among which were:

Most students do their share of binge drinking during their first year and then taper off.

The 44 percent of students who binge drink consume 70 percent of all alcohol consumed by students.

Drinking to excess is most often associated with sporting events and fraternities.

The proposed solutions grabbed less attention. More theory than prescription, the task force that prepared the report recommends universities take a three-pronged approach to preventing drinking: target the worst abusers, engage the student body as a whole and partner with the community around the university to address problems comprehensively.

In its tone and substance, the report focuses on preventing all drinking rather than promoting responsible drinking. Those thirsty for a departure from the law-enforcement approach to college drinking will be disappointed; the three-pronged plan is designed to make enforcement more effective. The grand plan is to force drinking out of the mainstream through a combination of strict enforcement of the 21-and-over law and campaigns to inform students about the dangers of all drinking.

This approach misses the point. The report fails to address two important aspects of the college drinking culture that, if not addressed, will undermine any efforts aiming for change.

First, far too little attention is paid to the disrespect for the law that pervades the culture of college drinking. The fact that students drink most heavily during their first months at college means that these students are breaking the law. Perhaps this is obvious, but it deserves to be brought to light because it demonstrates the resounding failure of the law-enforcement approach to curbing college drinking. Widespread disregard for the 21-and-over law threatens the deterrent effect of other laws against more serious drinking-related crimes like sexual assault and drunk driving.

The second fact of college drinking culture is the scarcity mentality. With nearly half of all students binge drinking and most drinking happening during the first year, a picture emerges of freshmen and sophomores, who usually turn 19 and 20 during those years in school, doing the most dangerous drinking. Those who experience the most restrictions are those drinking most. And the report notes that among these younger students the rate of abuse is the highest it has ever been – and rising.

The most astute conclusion of the report is the one implicit in its title: for better or worse drinking is part of the college culture. If the goal is to remove alcohol from the college experience, the 21-and-over law is a poor starting point. This relatively recent change draws an artificial, arbitrary social line down the middle of the student body at a typical four-year college. Tellingly, the report found that two-year community colleges have the lowest rates of alcohol abuse. If we want to sever the tie between alcohol and college it would be better to raise the drinking age to 22 or 23, an age when most students have graduated.

But the goal should not be prohibition for campuses – we have already learned the foolishness of that principle. A more sensible solution is to put the drinking age back to 18. To do so would acknowledge the cultural reality at colleges and move the drinking done by younger students into bars, clubs and restaurants where they would be subject to supervision and alcohol management. It would also focus law enforcement resources on reducing the harms of drinking – no matter what the age of the drinker.
-The writer is a senior majoring in political science.

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