Column: Lower the drinking age to 18 or raise the birth age to 3

(Photo by scragz/Flickr)

I am a proponent of lowering the drinking age and have been for a long time. I was probably 16 the first time I thought, “They should really lower the drinking age – as soon as possible. This afternoon would be ideal.”

Were those the foolish thoughts of a selfish teenager? Or were they the intelligent thoughts of a teen aware of the effect binge-drinking was having on his generation? I like to think they were a little bit of both, even though that would be not true.

My cause now has a proper champion. This summer more than 100 university presidents and chancellors signed their names to a public statement that says the 21 year-old drinking age is not working. They say it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on campus. The group calls itself the Amethyst Initiative, which is not what I would have named it, but I doubt The Washington Post would take the group seriously if it called itself, “The Everyone Just Cool Out and Booze-It-Up Responsibly Coalition.”

(Above: The first annual meeting of The Everyone Just Cool Out and Booze-It-Up Responsibly Coalition. philipshannon/Flickr.)

The Amethyst Initiative is led by John McCardell, whom writer Radley Balko describes as “the soft-spoken former president of Middlebury in Vermont.” He might just be the best man for the job because he is, in a word, sobering. He is the kind of man who looks like he wears a grey suit to bed.

(This guy, on the other hand, merits consideration the Spirit Award, but it’s doubtful that lawmakers would take him as seriously as Old Man McCardell.)

In 2004 McCardell wrote a powerful Op-Ed in The New York Times that said “the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law.”

McCardell continued, “State legislators, many of whom will admit the law is bad, are held hostage by the denial of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age. Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.”

I have been drinking alcohol legally for 11 years. On paper, it does not appear that I have a dog in this fight. But I do.

I’m tired of people who drink like assholes.

Much like Kegmeister General McCardell, I believe that drinking like an asshole – that is to say, repeatedly drinking to the detriment of oneself and others – is learned behavior. (Not all of the time – but in a large number of cases.) If you’re 16 and you’re drinking at a party with no adult supervision, odds are you or one of your friends is going to act like an asshole. Without seasoned drinkers around to veto your idiocy with a timely, “Don’t be an asshole,” this asinine behavior is repeated, copied and reinforced – for years. Anyone who goes to bars often enough sees the end results.

(Above: The end results. Bistrosavage/Flickr.)

Teenagers are socialized by their peers. None of my friends in high school sipped an aperitif while discussing the issues of the day before a delightful repast of Burger King. We drink fast and hard – the better to catch a quick buzz and avoid being busted. This is not the proper role of alcohol among civilized people.

The proper role of alcohol is to lower one’s inhibitions so that social gatherings are more enjoyable. Alcohol is a social lubricant. According to my Caveman Theory, which will be the subject of an upcoming column, human beings spent thousands of years suspicious of other human beings – for fear that outsiders might kill them or steal their valuable pelts. As a result, there is a natural tendency to eye newcomers with apprehension. Alcohol can lessen our anxiety in social situations and allow us to be open to meeting new people. It also can help us enjoy spending time with people we already know. The proper role of alcohol is to un-pucker the human sphincter – symbolically, of course.

A 16-year-old drinking in the back of a Buick LeSabre does not learn this valuable fact.

According to the Amethyst Initiative, the word amethyst comes from the ancient Greek words meaning “not” (a-) and “intoxicated” (methustos). According to mythology, Amethyst was a young girl who incurred the wrath of the god of wine, Dionysus, after he became intoxicated with red wine. (Who didn’t see that coming?) Amethyst asked the goddess Diana for help. Diana turned the girl into a white stone. (Some help.) Upon discovering what had happened Dionysus wept (he was probably drunk again), and as his tears fell into his goblet the wine spilled over the white rock, turning it purple.

The purple gemstone amethyst was widely believed to be an antidote to the negative effects of intoxication. (This was before Chaser.) In Greece, drinking vessels often were made of amethyst and used during feasts to ward off drunkenness, promote moderation and keep whiney Greek chicks from being turned to stone.

The ancient Greeks were smart. They crafted their beer mugs out of a material that reminded them, “Don’t drink like an asshole.”

American teens don’t have that type of guidance when it matters most – in the moment.

(Above: The ancient Greek way of saying, “You go sober up now, pal.” tourist_on_earth/Flickr.)

We learned how to drive from our mothers, fathers and older siblings. We learned how to read from our teachers. We learned about sex from a 55-year-old health teacher/defensive coordinator. But we never learned how to drink properly from people who do. We were left to our own devices. It was like handing a loaded gun to a guy who doesn’t know what a loaded gun does, but enjoys aiming things at people. Bad things were bound to happen. They did.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • John Kyle Grady

    Joe, I love this topic and this column. For years I have been pissed about the drinking age being 21. Here’s my biggest beef with the law: a 19 year-old kid can get shipped off to Iraq, see his Humvee get nailed by mortar fire, and come home with one arm, but he can’t then tell his story to his buddies while drinking a beer (with his one arm) at the local bar. Old enough to get wounded (or worse) fighting for our country, but not old enough to pound an Old Style? Makes zero sense.

  • Joe Donatelli

    Mike brought up the same point on the podcast. I agree completely. Thanks, John.

  • Bruce J. Blue aka “Texcat”

    This brings to mind memories of my youth (a long, long time ago). My best pal, Jim Powers, and I would catch a ride to Eleanor’s Tavern on E. 71st Street in Cleveland where her policy was “if you’re big enough to put a quarter on the bar, I’ll sell you a beer”. It wasn’t a published policy……it was her policy.

    The fact that a glass of beer used to cost a quarter should tell you how long ago this occurred. Eleanor is long gone……..but God bless her soul.

    The Woodlands, TX

  • Joe Donatelli

    Bruce — what a novel idea – letting the business owner decide whom she will or won’t serve. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Would have liked to have grown up in that Cleveland.


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