Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'll drink to that!

John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont and a professor of history at the school, is getting a lot of traction with his call to re-examine the de facto national drinking age of 21. He's founded an organization, Choose Responsibility, that modestly puts forward strong evidence that the federally enforced hike in the drinking age has actually eroded responsible drinking habits and led to more binge drinking and antagonistic relations between young adults and school authorities and police.

Damn straight.

I came of age just before the national crusade to deprive people of voting age of the right to legally drink alcohol got underway. I drank legally at age 18, for a while, attended a college with a campus pub and accepting attitude toward dormitory parties, then watched as a sort of mini-Prohibition changed the culture and forced drinking into roughly the same patterns as consumption of completely illegal drugs.

When I was 18, drinking usually meant going to a bar and buying beer. We drank, but we were much more likely to get blotto on weed than on alcohol. Frankly, getting tanked on legal alcohol was a bit expensive for our budgets, and the social setting in bars discouraged
complete obliteration.

When the drinking age jumped, our first concern was to get fake IDs. I did a good job of altering my driver's license with Letraset dry-transfer numbers and letters, and then re-laminating the card with book-binding tape. In fact, I did such a good job that other people asked me to the same for them; pretty soon, I was a go-to guy at college for false documents. It was a lucrative calling.

But not everybody had fake ID. So the social scene moved, increasingly, to private parties. Those of us with ID bought the booze; everybody drank. The environment was a bit less inhibited than at the bars we still frequented; weed, coke and other drugs circulated freely with the beer and shots. I distinctly remember price lists of a range of drugs posted on the walls at off-campus gatherings.

I may have been a good forger, but I wasn't the best. My business dropped off after a while, and I heard rumors of a faster, cheaper source operating in the basement of one of the dormitories. I went to check it out and found a line longer than the one at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles. In fact, I found the same Polaroid equipment in use as at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles. If I remember right, customers had their choice of Pennsylvania or Delaware driver's licenses--at ten bucks a pop less than I charged.

I was a craft forger, put out of business by mass production. Oh, the harsh laws of competition.

So, of course, the fun continued. Drinking was now an illegal activity, enabled by more law-breaking, and engaged in in concert with yet more transgressions of local, state and federal statutes. From buying a beer at a time at the campus pub or the local watering hole, we moved to doing funnels and flaming shots in friends' apartments--and maybe did a line or two to keep things going until dawn.

That's why McCardell's argument makes enormous sense to me based on personal experience. The transition from the relatively easy-going bar-hopping of my earliest experience to the underground partying of ... wow ... only a year later, was a powerful lesson in the distorting effect of prohibition.

It's not that we didn't over-indulge when alcohol was legal for 18-year-olds--we did. But we almost exclusively over-indulged and combined our drinking with other transgressive behavior when the drinking age rose to 21.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I can think of strong philosophical reasons as to why the government shouldn't be allowed to tell people when they can and can't drink, but McCardell makes a convincing pragmatic case that should convince even people skeptical of the idea of limiting state power.



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