Drinking age is unjustified, nonsensical

    The Sun God Festival is on its way to UCSD on May 16, bringing with it the wholesale shedding of our student body’s preoccupation with academics in favor of the revered collegiate institution: drunken revelry on a massive scale despite the small obstacle posed by hordes of CSOs vainly trying to enforce the minimum legal drinking age.

    It was in 1984 that the Uniform Drinking Age Act was enacted, which effectively forced all states to raise the drinking age to 21. While it was enacted with legitimate concerns in mind — primarily teenage drunk driving, alcohol poisoning and alcoholism — in practice the law is punitive, dogmatic, ineffective and damaging.

    First, the policy is based on the erroneous assumption that teenage drivers are a disproportionate cause of drunk-driving accidents. People under age 20 make up 9 percent of regular drinkers, as well as 9 percent of drunk-driving deaths and public drunkenness arrests, according to Harper’s Magazine. People age 15 to 24 made up only 0.8 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths during the 1990s, also according to Harper’s Magazine.

    Surprisingly, those aged 35 to 44 actually constitute the group most prone to death from alcohol poisoning in the 1990s, representing an average of 31 percent of such deaths per year. To truly curb irresponsible and dangerous drinking, policy would best be aimed at 35 through 44-year-olds, not teens and 20-year-olds.

    Furthermore, a “”see-saw effect”” is occurring as a result of the law: “”teen fatalities fall, adult deaths rise,”” wrote UC Santa Cruz sociologist Mike Males in Youth Today. Males elaborates, “”raising the drinking age to 21 slightly reduced fatal crashes by 18 to 20 year olds at the expense of more deaths among 21 to 24 year olds.””

    The government has to, in effect, pick its poison: Policy has a direct effect on which age group is dying in drunk driving accidents, which seem to be a tragic but inevitable byproduct of the availability of alcohol.

    The statistics paint a very clear picture of the situation. First, teenage drinkers are, according to the numbers, proportionally responsible for themselves, and secondly, that inexperience with alcohol, independent of age, is the main cause of dangerous mishaps. This inexperience is the direct and dangerous result of actually abiding by the law.

    The logical counter to inexperience causing accidents, and the one that current laws ignore, is education: both alcohol education in schools and education through doing.

    Unfortunately, the nation’s current alcohol “”education”” is little more than the vehement casting of alcohol as a one-way ticket to hell. Neglecting any meaningful discussion of the safe use of alcohol, it simply focuses on its negative and dangerous aspects, becoming a propagandist parody of true education. America’s youth are, in essence, expected to drink safely at the age of 21 after having absolutely no prior experience and no meaningful education, regarding the substance. The “”see-saw effect”” shows that this is a perilous expectation.

    The statistics illustrate the scenario that lawmakers love to ignore: Inexperience manifests itself at any age, and it’s not just teenagers that can be dangerous with alcohol. As the entire continent of Europe illustrates, alcohol, even in the hands of a young person, can indeed be used safely if one is armed with the tools to respect it and use it wisely.

    Current alcohol “”education”” also neglects the huge, overarching concept that America, in general, never likes to acknowledge: Teenage experimentation is a healthy and necessary part of growing up and the best way to learn is by doing. Rather than pinning the blame for all alcohol-related accidents on “”irresponsible youth,”” America could actually solve the problem by letting experiential learning take its natural course. This learning experience isn’t the reckless killing of one’s friends in a drunk-driving accident; it’s small but meaningful exposures to alcohol in safe environments, and honesty on the part of parents and other educators. Every other culture in the world does this, and their problems with DUI, alcoholism, and the like are trivial compared to ours.

    Let us not forget, however, that despite pathetic alcohol education and the elimination of safe venues in which to drink, America’s young people are relatively responsible drinkers, according to the statistics. This reality is clouded by the undue attention and biased media coverage given to the rare incidents in which high school and college drinking goes awry and the huge emphasis on irresponsible underage drinking in teen movies, MTV and the like.

    The public has a dangerously warped picture of youths’ relationship with alcohol, and this has resulted in the automatic criminalization of a normal experimental activity.

    This ignorance and demonization also leads to the mistaken fear that if the minimum drinking age were to be adjusted, America’s youth would guzzle tequila for breakfast, copulate like rabbits, have drunken brawls, never accomplish anything productive and kill each other while driving drunk. Consider first, however, that the median age at which children first consume alcohol is 13, according to the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. That is a full eight years before a person reaches the legal minimum age, and is compelling evidence that this law — just like Prohibition — is not enough to negate America’s customary use of alcohol starting in the teenage years.

    Thus, the adjustment of the law would have minimal negative impact because it’s currently having an inconsequential effect on the drinking habits of under-21-year-olds. Additionally, an adjustment would have the important and pleasant by-product of bringing much of this drinking into safe areas — bars, restaurants and the like –where it can be regulated, and social drinking, rather than drinking to get drunk, is promoted. Binge drinking can be the first indicator of the danger of alcoholism, another problem that the current law is ostensibly trying to combat. Shifting the focus to social drinking, however, has been shown to be an effective antidote to the withdrawal from society that alcoholism brings, according to UCSD sociology professor Stephen Lincoln.

    Then there is the most oft-repeated argument, the one that’s so basic, so fundamental that it throws the hypocrisy of laws regarding American youth into sharp relief: It’s absurd that a law essentially tells people under 21 that they have no personal responsibility when we can legally be executed for a crime, get killed in war, smoke cigarettes, get married and own a gun. Alcohol is potentially dangerous, but so are cars, assault rifles, knives and cigarettes — all of which are legal for an 18-year-old to use. Alcohol does bring the danger of drunk driving, but the statistics show that, in reality, most young people are wise about DUI.

    There’s also the simple fact that 21 is a nonsensical age at which to differentiate people. When people enter college, all bets are off — if they want to drink, they’ll drink. Alcohol is easy to procure and deeply embedded in college culture. By 21, most people have been in college or at least out of their parents’ house for several years, and they simply move their drinking to bars, restaurants and clubs. At UCSD, 18-year-olds can drive a few miles to Tijuana for a legal night of drinking, taking business to another country and a dangerous border town because this country’s drinking age is so awkward and arbitrary.

    The potential danger of alcohol cannot be underestimated, and it’s a shame that any person has died from its direct or indirect effects. The current alcohol laws, however, aren’t doing anything to minimize the dangers of alcohol; rather, they are exacerbating many of its worst risks.

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