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Saturday, March 01, 2008

It's Time to Close the Books on the Latest Noble Experiment: Repeal the 21 Year Old Drinking Age

I have three simple questions for the folks at the Marin Institute, Mother's Against Drunk Driving and the other anti-alcohol groups who threaten any politician who dares to question the effectiveness of the 21 year old drinking age:

(1) In the more than two decades since the drinking age switch was forced upon states by the threat of the loss of federal highway matching funds has the new law kept 18-20 year olds from drinking?

(2) Is it a safer environment now that the government has pushed 18-20 year old drinking underground, without controls or supervision, and caused otherwise law abiding young adults to break the law?

(3) Is it fair to say to a small group of adult Americans that there are rights the rest of us can enjoy that they are not entitled to -- at the very same moment that their government sends tens of thousands of 18-20 year olds to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight for their country?

The 21 year old drinking age -- Prohibition for the 18-20 year old crowd -- has been around since 1984. That's 23 years and counting -- 10 more years than the Prohibition the nation had to endure during the 1920s. The results have been much the same. This latest version of the Noble Experiment has failed. It has turned average people into criminals and created an underground society. Then and now, any politician that looks at the facts and decides to speak out faces the wrath of the highly organized drys.

But some elected officials are starting to show they have both the intellectual ability to see the 21 year old drinking age is not working and the guts to stand up to the neo-Prohibitionist lobby.

In Vermont, state Sen. Hinda Miller introduced a bill that would create a task force to look at the implications of lowering the legal drinking age in her state to 21. She is quoted in media reports saying, "Our laws aren't working. They're not preventing underage drinking. What they're doing is putting it outside the public eye. So you have a lot of kids binge drinking. They get sick, they get scared and they get into trouble and they can't call because they know it's illegal."

In South Dakota, a bill sits waiting for action that would allow 19-and 20-year-olds to legally buy 3.2 percent beer. Sort of an training wheels approach to the issue.

In Missouri, a grassroots group is using the Internet to gather 100,000 signatures to get a referendum before voters to lower the drinking age to 18.

South Carolina and Wisconsin legislators have made proposals that would permit active duty military personnel younger than 21 to buy alcohol. This falls under the "old enough to die for your country, old enough to have a beer" view of the world. New Hampshire lawmakers voted down a similar bill last year.

There is a group working to try to get Congress and state legislatures to look at the situation and repeal the 18-20 year old Prohibition. Choose Responsibility is a Vermont-based group, headed by John M. McCardell Jr., the former president of Middlebury College. The organization's primary goal is to encourage "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."

Choose Responsibility points out the U.S. is among a select group of countries that has a 21 year old drinking age. The others? Mongolia, Indonesia and Palau. It points out that according to the World Health Organization in many European countries where the drinking age is 18 or younger, 15 and 16 year-old teens have more drinking occasions per month, but fewer occasions of dangerous intoxication than their American counterparts. The group notes that one of the strongest arguments for the 21 year old drinking age -- drinking and driving deaths -- have declined since 1984. It also notes that the trend of fewer highway deaths relating to alcohol was already started before 21 became the law. Also during the last two decades other factors such as such as designated driver programs, alcohol awareness education, bar staff service training, greatly increased seatbelt usage, cars equipped with airbags, safer vehicles and highways, and lower permitted blood alcohol content levels have all contributed to cutting down on highway deaths.

A statement on its website says, "Choose Responsibility does not, has not, and will not receive funding from the alcohol beverage industry or organizations affiliated with it." This has to anger the neo-Prohibitionists because they would love to find "dirty money" from drinks companies backing the group so they could attack the effort.

It's time we end Prohibition for 18, 19 and 20 year olds.

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