Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hey Barry, let the kids crack open a cold one

In the recently concluded presidential election, just two candidates truly energized young Americans and brought them into politics: Ron Paul and Barack Obama. And only Obama ended up as president of the United States. For the overwhelming support he received from the it-doesn't-yet-hurt-when-I-wake-up set, the hip, new resident of the White House owes his fans a round of drinks. Or, at least, he owes them the opportunity to legally buy themselves a round of drinks.

The United States has the highest national drinking age in the world. Technically, the Constitution doesn't give the federal government the power to impose any such thing, but Congress got around that by linking federal highway funds to a national effort to breathe new life into the fake ID industry.

Some countries, including China and Portugal, have no minimum drinking age at all. Much of Europe sets the age at 16. Most countries put it at 18. And the U.S. is all alone in threatening legal adults as old as 20 with legal penalties if they sip a beer while contemplating whether to risk their lives in the country's armed forces.

But, as the comment above suggests, Americans 18-20 are still expected to undertake the full range of adult responsibilities, including military service, voting, signing contracts and (God help them) marriage. Frankly, all of these tasks are best undertaken either under the influence of a drink or with the promise of one to come.

Supporters of the drinking-age hike have argued (PDF) variously, over the years, that raising the age would save lives on the highways and spare teens the ill-effects of marinating their still-forming brains in alcohol.

But Choose Responsibility, an organization skeptical of the high national drinking age, points out that the most troubling data about brain development and alcohol comes only from rats, while the one study to look into the matter in humans found no difference in brain function between those who started drinking before 21 and those who started later.

And while drunken-driving fatalities did decline after the 1984 imposition of the mandated drinking age of 21, Choose Responsibility makes a strong argument that fluctuations in drunken driving numbers for different age groups more closely correspond with the sizes of those age groups from year to year than with any changes in the law.

That makes sense. While it's clear that the law changed in 1984, there's no evidence that the drinking age has been any more successful at cutting off access to the widely available stuff than have outright prohibitions on such substances as marijuana.

In fact, to teach responsible use of alcohol, Professor David J. Hanson, of the State University of New York, Potsdam, a recognized authority on alcohol-related issues, recommends that alcohol sould be presented as a "neutral" part of life that is "natural and normal." Moderate use should be taught early and at home.

College presidents who'd rather not take on the task of teaching responsible drinking all at once to thousands of young adults agree. Many of them have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, calling for reconsidering the national policy of trying to prevent some adults from having a legal beer.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is predictably outraged, but that's a group that has gone completely off the rails. MADD has been derided by its own founder, Candy Lightner, as "neo-prohibitionist."

So come on President Obama. It's time to push Congress to let your young supporters crack open a cold one in celebration. Honestly, they're doing it anyway. So just let them have a sip in the open.


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